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Dr. Ilse Treurnicht

Dr. Ilse Treurnicht at the oRAH, photo by Tony Lewis at InDaily


What did we learn from the woman who successfully turned the site of an old hospital into one of the world’s most influential innovation districts?

NVI gained invaluable insight into innovation and collaboration when Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, former CEO of MaRS in Toronto, visited us as part of the Don Dunstan Foundation’s Thinkers in Residence Program. 

In conjunction with Thinkers in Residence, NVI hosted two events and a close circle dinner at Sean’s Kitchen the CBD, over the course of one day.  The first was a Social Enterprice Masterclass: Doing Well While Doing Good, an interactive workshop focused on teaching participants how to scale their socially-oriented businesses. A group of Adelaide’s forward thinkers joined us for a roundtable discussion, Building World Class Innovation Precincts For Impact. This was an opportunity to ask hear Dr. Ilse’s story firsthand, and ask questions about every stage of the process and her learnings.

Building World Class Innovation Precincts for Impact

At the New Venture Institute, our motivation is cultivating innovation in our own state, to be implemented globally. There was a strong connection between the mission behind our programs and initiatives and those at MaRS, which made every Thinkers in Residence event relevant to our team. Whether it was a discussion around her success sourcing venture capital, running the MaRS district as a social enterprise or how she improved and promoted equality during her time as CEO, Dr. Ilse was an accommodating guest and thought provoking speaker.

Here’s the key takeaways from NVI’s own thinkers in residence:

Aron Hausler

Aron Hausler, Deputy Director of Operation

“Dr. Ilse made the point that you can have all of the infrastructure (labs, buildings, businesses…) but it’s the programs and people that activates an innovation precinct and makes it successful. That’s the way she structured her team to run, and similarly, it’s the role NVI plays in our community.”

  • 150 businesses operate in MaRS, but their programs and services support over 1000
  • MaRS has high expectations for their tenants – if they don’t participate and have meaningful engagements with the space they work from, they will be asked to leave
  • Their selection process is diverse, and they strive for equal representation


Angela Di Fabio

Angela Di Fabio, Business Development Coordinator

“During the fireside chat, Dr. Ilse discussed the coalition of the willing – an important ingredient in innovation precincts, as it brings the buy-in for stakeholders and participants.

  • Underpinning the culture of MaRS is philanthropically led participation – an important soft element
  • Legislation in the precinct assisted with the development of the infrastructure to develop a rich ecosystem of accessibility, connectivity and sense of place.

Bert VerhoevenBert Verhoeven, Senior Lecturer of Innovation and Enterprise

“Dr. Ilse is an inspiring person. She’s built a district that is home to more than 150 organisations, and employs over 6000 people. MaRS is a launchpad for startups, a platform for researchers and a home to innovators.”

  • Canada draws similar parallels to Australia when it comes to Industry-University collaboration. The realisation that all the separate commercialisation efforts of public research institutes like universities/labs are too fragmented and would not lead to a major improvement in the results of Industry/university commercialisation projects led to the remarkable decision to join forces and make MaRS the front door for a large number of research organisations/labs, pulling together IP and providing support services to accelerate/incubate.
  • Dr. Ilse stressed that in this collaborative model it’s crucial to get the right people on the bus
  • The MaRS mission is to be an entrepreneurial venture designed to bridge the gap between what people need and what governments provide: A place where inspiration meets realisation.

Carla Diaz WadewitzCarla Dias Wadewitz, Innovation and Acceleration Project Developer

“I noticed an interesting link between MaRS and Tonsley, in that MaRS initially capitalised on of Toronto’s world recognised capabilities, medical research, to attract important players to the precinct. Should Tonsley be doing more of the same?”

  • Data collection and analysis is crucial to monitor the start-ups but also invaluable to attract investors.  Basically, the whole ecosystem is monitored through a data collection that issues relevant statistics to improve all the stakeholders. The software used by MaRS to conduct data analysis and extract reports was developed by one of the start-ups working at the MaRS precinct.
  • Know the target customer you want to attract to the precinct: for example, the target customer was not the research team of pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer  who wouldn’t engage a lot with the ecosystem (because of the nature of their work) but the marketing team of the same companies who in turn could more freely engage with the rest of the ecosystem
  • It is possible to generate a positive return in government managed funds giving back to taxpayers and making them believe that a well-managed social enterprise is an effective model
  • It takes time (12 years) to develop a sustainable model like MaRS and the fact that you have strong and resilient leadership to make the whole team continue to believe through the ups and downs is a crucial success factor

Margaret LedwithMargaret Ledwith, Associate Professor 

“Strong research outputs are required to get to critical mass of high quality innovation inputs. Doing this well means building on key research strengths, and realising you can’t be all things to all people.”

  • Competition is global – don’t get paranoid about local competition but instead work together to build Adelaide and South Australia as a destination.
  • Free up IP!


To end her residency in Adelaide, Dr. Ilse delivered an oration on everything she’s observed during her visit, her forecasts for the future and to speak about the importance of female inclusion in innovation. Fittingly, the event took place in the oRAH, which has been revealed to be the future site of the next big business hub.

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