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Scientist in laboratory

‘Our innovation economy is an area of enormous strength’

CPA Nicole Barry, chief financial officer of MaRS Discovery District, shares her views on where Canada stands in terms of innovation, and how we can improve

Scientist in laboratory The MaRS centre in Toronto is North America’s largest innovation hub (Photo courtesy of MaRS Discovery District)

Nicole Barry is no stranger to innovation. A recipient of the CPA Early Achievement Award, she has held senior leadership roles in organizations ranging from large corporations to academia, and is also the founder of two startups—including Winnipeg’s Half Pints Brewing Company.

In February 2022, Nicole became chief financial officer and chief administration officer of MaRS Discovery District, North America’s largest urban innovation hub. We asked her to share her perspective on innovation in Canada and how CPAs can encourage novel thinking in their own organizations.

CPA CANADA: How did you come to be at MaRS and what does your role involve?
Nicole Barry (NB): I had long admired MaRS for its impact in helping new ventures grow and succeed. So when the opportunity arose to join the organization, I was very pleased to take it. This meant relocating from my hometown of Winnipeg to Toronto. 

As CFO, I am able to be part of the impactful work that MaRS is leading. Our teams support high-growth startups and scale-ups from across the country that are tackling key issues in cleantech, health, fintech and software. The finance and operations teams I lead at MaRS are the engine that supports the organization, ensuring that we create alignment and efficiencies across all areas so that our colleagues have the support they need to drive the innovation economy. 

In terms of physical infrastructure, the MaRS centre has 1.5 million sq. ft. of office, lab meeting and event space in downtown Toronto. It’s a real beating heart of innovation. We have more than 100 companies as part of our tenant community. 

CPA CANADA: How does Canada compare to other countries in terms of innovation? What are some important metrics to keep track of? 
NB: Canada’s reputation as a great place for startups is growing. We’re ranked fourth in the Global Startup Ecosystem Index after the U.S., the U.K. and Israel.

Some important innovation metrics come from the Innovation Economy Council, a MaRS-supported think-tank. When you count the number of startups, plus the technology investments being made by industry, the innovation economy represents 12 per cent of the Canadian GDP. This makes it an area of enormous strength and strategic advantage.

It’s also interesting to note that the innovation economy is the only sector that did not shrink during the pandemic. In fact, it is growing at three to six times the rate of any other sector in Canada. As our CEO Yung Wu often shares, the new economy is being built on the backbone of the innovation economy. 

CPA CANADA: What do you see as the main challenges to innovation in Canada right now and what could potentially be done to address them?
NB: Capital availability continues to be one of the biggest challenges for companies as they race to scale their innovations, attract customers and hire talented workers. And recession does mean tougher times for startups.

We encourage industry and government leaders to invest in the innovation launch pad, like the one we have created at MaRS. This is a form of infrastructure for the innovation economy that includes office space, marketing and public relations expertise and more. Having access to this infrastructure dramatically increases the chances of success for a startup. 

Portrait image of CPA Nicole BarryCPA Nicole Barry is the chief financial officer and chief administration officer of MaRS Discovery District (Image provided)

CPA CANADA: How big a role does MaRS play in Canada’s innovation sectors overall?
NB: At MaRS, our purpose is to help innovators create a better, more sustainable and inclusive world. Our ecosystem of MaRS-supported ventures employs 32,600 workers and contributed more than $30 billion in GDP since we started operating over 20 years ago.

When an entrepreneur starts a company, they need access to investment capital and a pipeline of skilled talent. They may need office space and access to business development expertise and more. These are all components of that innovation infrastructure previously mentioned, and MaRS convenes it in one spot. Founders are often brilliant experts when it comes to their area of innovation, but it takes a village of other experts and investment to help the venture mature and grow.

CPA CANADA: MaRS focuses on four sectors: cleantech, health, fintech and enterprise software. Which sector is currently the most active?
NB: Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing us today and the cleantech sector—both literally and metaphorically—has the biggest potential to transition us to a more sustainable future. 

Fortunately, Canada is among the top countries globally for cleantech innovation and we can expect to see even greater momentum in this sector. According to the Innovation Economy Council, the global cleantech market is expected to hit US$2.5 trillion this year. Canadian exports for cleantech goods and services hit $7 billion in 2018 and could nearly triple to $20 billion by 2025. 

At MaRS, climate action has long been a key mission and we get to work with these types of companies every day. Last year we launched Mission from MaRS, a climate impact challenge that brings together a group of Canadian ventures and helps them scale their innovations. We convene coalitions of industry leaders and policy makers around each innovation to break down barriers and eliminate choke points. The next phase focuses on a public procurement platform to help ventures better navigate the process and successfully sell to the biggest buyers in cleantech—our public sector. Another initiative is the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator that helps a diverse group of women advance breakthrough ideas into market-ready cleantech products with the potential for global impact.

CPA CANADA: Where else can Canada take a lead role?  
NB: Biotech is a sector that Canada could and should be leaning into if we want to grow the innovation economy. While Canada has long had excellent research, it has historically lacked both the capital needed for companies to commercialize breakthroughs and the manufacturing capabilities to take them to treatments actively helping patients. As a result, many promising companies instead move to ecosystems where these conditions for success are in place. 

This is something that speaks to our history as an organization. The building that MaRS calls home was where the world’s first dose of insulin was discovered and administered more than 100 years ago. When MaRS was founded 20 years ago, its original name stood for Medical and Related Sciences, reflecting our mission to follow Banting’s lead by ensuring that innovation born in Canada can thrive here, for the benefit of all Canadians and for the good of humanity. 

CPA CANADA: What can be done to help MaRS accomplish its goal of promoting innovation in Canada, both upstream and downstream?
NB: Right now, one of the biggest barriers to success for the best and brightest innovators is inspiring the adoption of their game-changing technologies and solutions. That’s why one of our biggest priorities is to help levels of government cut through the red tape of procurement bureaucracy and also to help to educate corporate partners about the business case for adopting the innovations of our leading startups.

Innovation Economy Council research on 259 fast-growing cleantech firms found that between 2009 and 2020, just 3.6 per cent of high-growth cleantech startup revenues came from government procurement.

Government is not procuring what it could be. Our cleantech companies derive the vast majority of their revenue from outside their domestic market—the opposite of how it works in many other countries.

CPA CANADA: How would you say CPAs can facilitate innovation in general, and in their own organizations in particular?
NB: I have long known CPAs to be outside-the-box thinkers. We question the status quo and are innately curious as to how we can influence optimization and transform an organization to improve its impact. That is how innovators think and CPAs are primed for that role.   

CPA CANADA: Do you have any other innovation idea or conclusion that you would like to share?
NB: When an organization creates a learning culture where bold ideas are encouraged and making mistakes is part of the journey, that’s when innovation can flourish. Bold ideas that will change the world require an appetite for learning and taking chances. 


Find out how systems innovation models can make organizational innovation more viable and less risky, and how the Innovation Delta Model can help you more accurately evaluate and value innovation. Plus, learn more about measuring the value of intangible assets, and be sure to check out our profiles of CPAs who are playing leading roles in the innovation economy.