Sunshine floods through a series of skylights hidden in an oddly shaped ceiling.

San Francisco alumni reception

Ladies and gentlemen, let me say how truly delighted I am to be back in San Francisco, one of the world’s most beautiful and dynamic cities. As some of you may recall, I visited the Bay Area shortly after I became President. It’s hard to believe, but I’m now midway through my third year. I have to say that meeting our alumni is one of the things I enjoy most about the job.

When I spoke here in 2014, I outlined my Priorities for the University of Toronto. Tonight I would like to do something a bit different. Given where we are meeting, in the middle of what is arguably the world’s most innovative urban region, I thought you’d be interested to hear about recent developments in Toronto’s innovation ecosystem, and the very important role your alma mater is playing in it.

To set the stage, some of you will be familiar with the work of Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who published a best-seller a few years ago which argued that “The World is Flat”. He used that image to convey the declining relevance of geography and international borders, thanks to the Internet and the increasing reach of global corporations. In response to this view, my U of T colleague Richard Florida argued in a widely cited essay in The Atlantic that the global economy is not “flat” but “spiky”. Florida persuasively described an emerging geography in which the importance of major urban regions is growing, not waning.

Subsequent work in this field has confirmed that these “spikes” in the world economy have two key qualities. First, they are places that attract and retain a critical mass of top talent; places where people can get together and share knowledge easily. This is crucial for spurring new ideas and innovation. Second, spikes are connected to other places around the world that are doing the same thing.

I would argue that the Bay Area and the Greater Toronto Area are both great examples of “spikes”. The work of AnnaLee Saxenian at UC Berkeley documents how the Bay Area demonstrates these two qualities in spades. I will outline, in a few minutes, how Toronto does the same.

And when it comes to global connectedness, it is worth noting the very strong connections between the Bay Area and Toronto. Since 2010, there have been almost 4,300 research papers co-authored by scholars at the University of Toronto and research institutions in the Bay Area. This represents the 7th largest collaborative effort between Bay Area institutions and any university in the world – and the largest outside the US.

Our combined research impact is even more impressive. Over the same six-year period, publications coauthored by scholars at U of T and their colleagues in the Bay Area have been cited by their peers more than 130,000 times. That’s an average of more than 60 times per day!

So, let me tell you a bit more about the Toronto region and how it is emerging as a major global spike. I’d like to share three brief stories, which describe how your alma mater is a key part of it all. The first comes from the field of regenerative medicine; the second from computer science; and the third from the serendipitous collision of the first two, in a new field called computational medicine.

First, regenerative medicine. It is now well documented that the University of Toronto and its affiliated hospitals form a world-class cluster of health science research and clinical practice. In all the health and life sciences, only Harvard publishes more research than we do. And only research from Harvard and Johns Hopkins is cited more often.

Importantly, more and more of Toronto’s prodigious research output is being translated into economic activity, as our innovation ecosystem develops. It now includes major elements such as: the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine; the MaRS Discovery District, Canada’s largest technology incubator (right across College Street from our St George campus); and U of T’s own Banting and Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (on the north side of College Street).

We are producing a growing stream of impressive, homegrown health start-ups. And very recently, Toronto was announced as the site of the first international expansion of JLabs from Johnson & Johnson Innovation – precisely because of the region’s strength as a biomedical cluster with few equals in the world. The other JLabs are here in the Bay Area, in San Diego, and in Boston. Their mission is to generate and scale-up the next wave of health care start-ups.

It’s equally noteworthy that venture capital is flowing into Toronto from abroad to fund these start-ups, drawn by the quality of the research coming out of U of T and our affiliated hospitals, by our talent base, and by our global research collaborations. These global investors now regard Toronto as one of the principal assets and sources of value associated with these start-ups – meaning that they want these firms to develop in Toronto, not somewhere else.

In other words, Toronto is becoming not just “spiky” but also “sticky”. This illustrates something that Michael Bloomberg said a couple of years ago: “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent.”

In addition, not only has the venture investment community begun to sit up and take notice of all the great things happening in Toronto – so too have our provincial and federal governments. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s special advisor on economic strategy, Ed Clark (former CEO of TD Bank – and U of T alumnus!), argues that the province’s future will come to depend increasingly on advanced, knowledge-based services that have the potential to be “exported”. He singles out two key sectors: higher education and health care, noting that both have great potential to attract income to the region from outside Canada. And his prescription for a brighter future includes doubling down on winning sectors such as these. (We may see the influence of Ed Clark’s thinking in the Ontario Government’s $15-million investment in U of T’s new Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, announced in the Budget Speech last week.)

Meanwhile, at the federal level, we have seen a succession of positive announcements. This includes major recent funding announcements in Toronto’s health sciences cluster, such as: $114 million for U of T’s Medicine by Design initiative to develop and commercialize new therapies based on stem cells and regenerative medicine – an ambitious project, which is based in part on the landmark $129 million gift from the Rogers family to establish the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research; and just a few weeks ago, Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused quite a stir when he came to our Banting and Best Centre for a tour, and then crossed the street to the MaRS centre to announce $20-million for a new Centre for Advanced Therapeutic Cell Technologies.

It’s worth noting that these recent commitments build on other foundational investments in Toronto’s health science cluster by the federal government over the past decade and more – to establish three Centres of Excellence for Commercialization of Research; and to fund Canada Research Chairs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs (there are 22 of these at U of T in fields related to regenerative medicine alone).

Now, to my second story. (And I promise you, stories #2 and 3 will be more brief.) Bill Buxton graduated from U of T with an MSc in Computer Science in 1975. He joined the faculty at U of T, and later became a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research. In 2013, he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater.

In the intervening years, he and his colleagues in the Dynamic Graphics Project, based in our Department of Computer Science, pioneered many innovations in human-computer interaction. As far back as the 1980s, their work led to the development of the multi-touch screens so ubiquitous today on all our smart phones and tablets.

In 1994, Buxton joined a firm in Toronto called Alias/Wavefront – now part of Autodesk, a Bay Area firm – and helped lead a revolution in human-computer interfaces and digital graphics. Alias/Autodesk was – and remains – a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in Toronto, producing leading-edge software for 3D design, engineering, and entertainment – including their famous 3D rendering software Maya, which is used in many films. (Indeed, this past Sunday marked Autodesk’s 9th Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement and the 21st year in a row that the company’s software was used in the movie that won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects – this year’s winner was Ex Machina, in case you weren’t watching!)

Buxton’s move to Autodesk was just one indicator of a close – even symbiotic – partnership between the firm and U of T’s Computer Science department. Over the years, Autodesk has hired hundreds of our graduates, some of whom later returned to U of T to become faculty members and serial entrepreneurs. In fact, one of them is our current Department Chair, Ravin Balakrishnan.

And I’m happy to report that today, Autodesk is doubling down on its investment in Toronto. In November, the company announced plans to take up two floors and a street-level space in the new West Tower of the MaRS Discovery District, at the corner of College and University. One of their primary motivations is to be physically closer to the talent base at U of T.

So again, story #2 provides further evidence of Toronto’s increasing “spikiness” and “stickiness”, as well as the important influence of U of T.

My third and final story this evening is about Deep Genomics, an incredibly exciting, new company at the forefront of the emerging field of computational medicine. It’s a brilliant example of the kind of serendipitous collision I mentioned earlier – a product of U of T’s massive strength in both health sciences and computing; a phenomenon that can only happen in a “sticky spike” such as Toronto.

The company’s President and CEO, Brendan Frey, is a Professor in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His Deep Genomics team members are world-leading experts in machine learning and genome biology. They’re inventing a new generation of computational technologies that can tell us what will happen within a cell when DNA is altered by genetic variation, whether natural or therapeutic.

Their work began a decade ago, in their efforts to create a computer system that mimics how cells read DNA and generate life. In a way no one could have predicted, it’s now leading to the transformation of precision or personalized medicine, genetic testing, diagnostics, and pharmaceutical R&D.

In December I had the pleasure of speaking at a reception celebrating the launch of the company. It was an amazing gathering – featuring Professor Frey and his team; fellow U of T luminaries Stephen Scherer (a world leader in Genomic Medicine and Autism research) and Geoff Hinton (Professor of Computer Science and one of the acknowledged ‘fathers’ of Machine Learning, who’s now spending half the year at Google); and they were surrounded by some prominent and very keen VCs from Silicon Valley.

I want you to note two things from this story. First, it demonstrates the amazing things that can happen when you bring together really smart people from different, but related, fields. Second, there are very few other places in the world – perhaps none – where such a gathering could happen: some of the world’s top scientists, innovators, and investors, gathering at the centre of a new field of research and at the dawn of a new era in modern medicine. And it happened – it is happening now – in Toronto, and at your alma mater.

Ladies and gentlemen, I know we’re all looking forward to the chance to mingle and to enjoy this great company. And I’m looking forward to meeting more of you and to hearing your ideas and stories.

But before we get back to partying, I had planned to conclude with an invitation to come back to Toronto, perhaps to bring your experience and expertise “back home”… but it appears you might be way ahead of me. Google reports that just after midnight following Super Tuesday, searches for “How to move to Canada” spiked at over 1,150 percent of normal! And the Bay Area – which wasn’t even participating in Super Tuesday – showed the second highest regional share of those searches! (That’s next to Boston.) Ahead of the curve, as always.

Thank you, again, for joining us this evening. And thank you for your commitment to the University of Toronto.

More In the Community