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Cleantech and healthcare: two sectors leading exponential technology growth in Toronto

If you take a moment to consider the past two decades with respect to technology, it can be kind of mind-boggling. We can watch TV in the palm of our hand, photograph atoms and communicate with one another from virtually any place at any time. But that's how technology is. It builds and grows in an exponential way. New ideas pave the way for even newer ideas.
In 2001, futurist Ray Kurzweil painted a startling picture of the rapid evolution of technology. "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)," Kurzweil, who would eventually become Google's director of engineering, said. "The 'returns,' such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially—there's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth." 
Access to faster computing, rapidly developing mobile infrastructure, and Internet technologies has created a worldwide culture of innovation. But where does Toronto fit in when it comes to developing these exponential technologies?
The following is the first in a two part series that looks at what Toronto is doing to make its mark as a flourishing hub of innovation. In this part we flip the microscope over the cleantech and healthcare sectors. 
"We've built the biggest cleantech deal-flow engine in North America here," says Tom Rand, renowned Toronto-based cleantech advisor and entrepreneur. "Cleantech is a hodgepodge—it's new ways of doing business, it's smart grid, it's intelligent energy management—and we have companies that play right across that spectrum."
As one of the managing partners of the privately-backed MaRS Cleantech Fund and a senior advisor at the MaRS Discovery District, Rand is privy to the swaths of innovation coming out of Toronto and the bustling 'burbs where many members of Ontario's thriving cleantech sector operate.
The fund's portfolio has over 400 companies working through the pipeline, "Three dozen of which are really interesting," he adds. One of the most sophisticated innovations to come out of the fund is Smart Energy Instruments (SEI) Smart Grid Sensor.
"It takes a snapshot of the grid at any one point and synchronizes with it through the GPS crystal. It's the most accurate synchronization on the planet," he says.
The device is able to track the flow of energy across smart grids at the speed of light. It's probably what Kurzweil had in mind when he first mused about exponential technologies.
"It's a pretty advanced piece of technology—these guys make it on a $70 chipset," says Rand. It's advancement like SEI's sensor that when coupled with private funding for early stage capital, an energy institute that engages the utility companies, and access to a global network of advisors and corporate partners—like Siemens and GE—that make Toronto a strong industrial cluster for Canada's green economy. 
Circuit Meter, another company in Rand's portfolio, has developed real-time, low-cost ($30/circuit) electrical metering, which uploads the info to a cloud-based system—allowing businesses to oversee their energy use from wherever they are, predict potential faults and monitor the effectiveness of their equipment.
Then there's fellow MaRS cohort Hydrostor, which is tackling green energy storage by anchoring a low-cost air cavity on the bottom of a lake or ocean floor and filling it with compressed air created using surplus renewable energy. When the system releases the air stored underwater it drives a turbine putting the energy back onto the grid. 
But it's not just MaRS, the city itself seems to emanate a gravitational pull for the renewable energy and cleantech sector. 
According to Invest Toronto, the sector employs 36,000 in over 1,700 companies and generates $50 billion in revenues annually. More solar companies are headquartered here than anywhere else in Canada and over the next five years, utilities in Ontario will invest approximately $390 million annually in smart grid technology—with the majority of that investment going to Toronto-based companies.
"I think that cleantech is the single biggest global market in the twenty first century," adds Rand.
But he's hesitant to see other hubs like Kitchener's Communitech and GreenCentre Canada in Kingston as competition.
"Our competitor is fossil fuels," says Rand. "We don't compete with the hubs, we cooperate with them—cleantech is a team game."
With more than 50 per cent of Canada's life sciences companies, 53 of the world's top 100 life sciences multinationals, and 16 of the top 25 global medical device companies operating in Toronto or nearby, the city is a powerhouse when it comes to healthcare innovation. 
According to Invest Toronto, since 2005, the city has seen $1 billion invested in over one million square feet of new research facilities. 
Raphael Hofstein, president and CEO of MaRS Innovation—the commercialization agent for intellectual property that comes out of four Toronto universities, 10 hospitals and several research centres—credits the allure of strong intellectual infrastructure and access to a wide array of major healthcare companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Medtronic with making the city a hub for healthcare technology development. MaRS Innovation has about 15 healthcare-focused companies in its portfolio at the moment.
"The Intellectual Property that is being generated in Toronto (is) a major chunk of the IP that's being generated across Canada," he says. 
He points to ChipCare Corporation's state-of-the-art handheld analyzer, which allows doctors to run multiple diagnostics on a patient's blood on site as opposed to bringing the patient to the clinic. The University of Toronto developed cell analyzer could prove to be a game changer in the fight against HIV. "Lab-in-a-chip" technology like this is crucial in third world countries where healthcare access is severely limited.
Xagenic’s AuRA platform—another diagnostic tool for blood samples—uses ultra sensitive microelectrode arrays (nano-sensors) developed by another team of researchers at University of Toronto. The inexpensive tech makes it possible for molecular diagnostic testing outside of labs.
MaRS Innovation-backed ApneaDX has developed a clinical-quality sleep-monitoring tool. Previously, diagnosing for sleep apnea—a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal breathing patterns—often required an expensive overnight stay at a sleep clinic. The device is a fraction of the cost and records the data on a chip, which is then analyzed by the company’s software. 
Developments in the healthcare sector like these are bringing the clinic home and helping to reduce the cost of medical devices while expanding the frontiers of medicine.
But what's innovation without a little friendly competition, says Hofstein.
"If you were to ask someone from Quebec they will tell you that Quebec is the seat of the soul for all healthcare-related operations," he says. "And I will argue that everybody should really dive deep into the data and from the data will realize that that's not necessarily the case." Hofstein's being slightly facetious – MaRS is a major player in the Ontario-Quebec Life Sciences Corridor, a large-scale cluster of life sciences-geared start-ups. 
"The competition should not be between us and other provinces, it should be between us and the rest of the world," he says. 
Like most industries, Hofstein admits life sciences innovation can be bootstrapped at times. 
"It's not that there's not enough cash in downtown Toronto, there's more than enough, but it does not come to the turf of healthcare," he says. "That's a challenge that we are all facing and will have to address in the near future."
The Next Ten
As these young companies prove-up new exponential technologies and jockey for a place in the mosaic that makes up Toronto’s vibrant healthcare and cleantech communities, it’s hard to say which will become catalysts for the next decade of development and which will become obsolete in a few years.
But if the blitz of advancements that are coming out of Toronto at the moment are any indication, this city’s going to stick around as key player in exponential innovation.

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto StarThe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. Stay tuned for Part II of his series exploring exponential technology in Toronto, which runs in Yonge Street on December 4th.
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