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Big-Brain Hunting: The Key to Supercluster Success

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When Raymond Laflamme first met Howard Burton, the founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, he was sure he was being set up by the FBI.

The year was 1999, and in the wake of an espionage scandal at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Laflamme worked as a research scientist, Burton had been aggressively courting the Canadian physicist, whose accolades include helping shape Stephen Hawking's theories about time.

Burton called Laflamme repeatedly and insisted on showing up at the Los Alamos lab, a nuclear weapons research facility in New Mexico, to chat about opportunities at an institute he was heading up on behalf of some dude named Mike Lazaridis. The offer was intriguing but a little far-fetched, and for Laflamme, who'd just watched an innocent colleague go to the slammer for supposedly sharing U.S. nuclear secrets with China, Burton's pushiness was enough to spark a little paranoia.

"I thought, 'This is probably some kind of sting operation...they're probably just checking to see who is not following the rules at the lab,'" says Laflamme, recalling the anxious moments he spent sitting in a Los Alamos café, where he'd agreed to meet Burton in the spring of 2000. "I sat at the back and was kind of expecting this guy in a black trench [coat] to show up at the door. But then this really good guy showed up," he says, laughing. "And that was my first impression of Perimeter."

Burton was just doing what world-class academic institutions and think tanks have to do to thrive: He was hunting down the best talent on the planet. Months later, after an extended charm offensive, Burton, along with Lazaridis and David Johnston, then president of the University of Waterloo, got their man. Raymond Laflamme moved his family to Waterloo in 2001, where he remains the founding director of UW's Institute for Quantum Computing, working closely with Perimeter to ensure that both institutions bring world-class science to Waterloo.

While most recruiting efforts don't spark flashbacks to a national security breach, capturing intellectual capital remains central to developing top-tier post-secondary institutions and think tanks, the brain centres of the most vibrant innovation ecosystems. Institutions like Perimeter, the University of Waterloo and the Centre for International Governance Innovation or MaRS, the University of Toronto and Ryerson University enrich the talent pool and breadth of ideas in both Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, the poles of a corridor poised to become a North American technology supercluster.

For tech companies on the lookout for fresh thinkers, proximity to such institutions can be a goldmine: Not only do they cultivate incredible research and development talent, they also foster an intellectual community that appeals to the kinds of people startups need to help them grow.

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"It's a very strategic scenario to have a really strong theory group in your cluster," says John Matlock, the Perimeter Institute's director of external relations and public affairs. "They contribute interesting ideas, they help interpret the data when it arrives, and they can advance understanding very economically just through mathematics and chalk, considering various concepts before you even get into the lab."

How to bait a brainiac
Since it opened in 1957, the University of Waterloo has been foundational to the growth of K-W's innovation ecosystem.

Created by the local business community who were responding to a need for engineers in Canada, its mandate remains firmly rooted in the ideas of entrepreneurship and commercialization. From its intellectual property policy - if you invent it, you own it - to its co-operative education program (the world's largest), UW's entrepreneurial bent has become a magnet for students and faculty with commercially-oriented interests. Those two policies also help it bring in top talent, says Tim Jackson, vice-president of university relations.

UW students and alumni have gone on to start some of the tech world's most notable players, from RIM (BlackBerry) and OpenText to Desire2Learn and Pebble. According to Jackson, 72 per cent of the region's knowledge-based companies hire from UW.

"It's a cultural thing that the university has really created," he says. "And that has caused the other post-secondary institutions to also come on, so you've got a lot of entrepreneurial action happening at Laurier, you've got Conestoga College that consistently ranks number 1 in Ontario colleges - both are entrepreneurially and industrial-minded."

When I asked Fred Kuntz, the vice-president of public affairs at the Centre for International Governance Innovation about UW's intellectual property policy, he lauded it as "brilliant" and a significant factor in strengthening the region's intellectual capital.

"The best talent is going to go where they can keep their own ideas," he said. "That's how you build up a great research community, so in Waterloo you now have this world-leading computer science, mathematics and engineering cluster - people who have come for those reasons. And that spawns a technology sector."

CIGI brings top-tier thinkers to K-W - people who are largely based in bigger cities such as Washington, D.C., London, New York, Brussels or Beijing but who relocate to K-W to be part of the region's thriving research community.

Recruitment strategies, says Kuntz, often focus on the region's quality of life: great schools, no gridlock, a safe and welcoming community. There is, of course, the allure of being close to Toronto, which isn't always the most fruitful pitch.

"We say we're close to Toronto, but again, how great is transportation between Toronto and Waterloo? There's a highway system, but there's no high-speed train or anything like that."

The most important sell, Kuntz tells me, is the quality of the institutions themselves.

"If you're a researcher and you have a passion for your subject, whether it's theoretical physics or international governance or any of the other kinds of institutions we're developing here - which could include technology - and you have an opportunity to really dive into your research and someone is going to fund that and place a good team around you...that's what people will come for. They'll come for the excitement of the work and the opportunities for good research."

It's worked for Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which has been able to attract many of the global science community's biggest brains. From Kevin Costello, an internationally lauded mathematician who was poached from Northwestern University, to Davide Gaiotto, an Italian-born quantum field theorist who moved from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study this past fall, Perimeter's reputation as a premier research facility is a huge sell.

"We've had incredible recruitment success over the past five years, since Neil Turok arrived, especially," says Michael Duschenes, Perimeter's chief operating officer, referring to the institute's director, whose research colleagues have included Stephen Hawking. "We are now competitive with any place in the world. We win far more recruitment battles than we lose and we beat out the Stanfords and the MITs and the Cambridges of the world on a regular basis, so we know we're extremely competitive."

How to bait business
"It's just not accurate in 2014 to say that Toronto's not a major global city," says Aron Solomon, a senior advisor at MaRS and mentor to startups from Stockholm to Silicon Valley. "So, when an entrepreneur thinks, 'I want to start a business in an ecosystem that's going to help me start and grow my business,' Toronto is one of the six or seven cities you'd think of in the world if you're really doing your research."

As the, ahem, centre of the universe, it's no surprise that Hogtown appeals to startups in the Canadian sphere. And for fans of urban living and all that goes with it, Toronto is arguably Canada's premier destination. But its international reputation for high-powered research facilities have also put the city on the map for top-flight international academics.

The University of Toronto - ranked 20th in the world (and number 1 in Canada) for 2013-2014 by The Times Higher Education World University Rankings - has produced a pool of 17,000 graduate students poised to help power a tech revolution. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a part of U of T, is the largest research-focused faculty of education in Canada and an international leader in education schools. Ryerson University is the country's third-largest engineering school; its Digital Media Zone has helped incubate more than 100 startups since 2010 including success stories such as Viafoura, Bionik Labs and 500px. MaRS Innovation draws global talent such as Lyssa Neel, an American who helped U of T professor James Colliander start Crowdmark, one of Toronto's hottest startups. The Ontario College of Art and Design has grown from an institution that struggled locally to one that is now included in conversations around the world. To put it mildly, the innovation ecosystem in the city is thriving.

"Between Toronto and Waterloo there's so much amazing intellectual capital in our region," says Solomon. "It's just amazing the amount of people in a city like this that you have access to day in and day out and I think that that's a draw for global entrepreneurs to come to Toronto."

Andrew D'Souza is one example. The former COO of Top Hat, a student engagement system that makes use of mobile devices in the classroom, could be working anywhere in the world, says Solomon, but he chose Toronto. Now president of Bionym, a biometric recognition company, D'Souza sees opportunity in the intellectual capital that has conglomerated in the city's core.

"I firmly believe that this ecosystem is going to grow faster than anywhere else in the world in the next three to five years," D'Souza tells me. "All of the ingredients are here - the talent that's coming out of the universities around the city is phenomenal, access to capital is getting increasingly better, angel investors are placing bigger bets on bigger ideas earlier and they're being forced to do that because investors are coming up from Silicon Valley and New York to do deals here."

And the technology that powers the Nymi, Bionym's flagship product? It wasn't born in some guy's Scarborough garage - it sprung out of the University of Toronto.

How to put a bump in the road
Back in Waterloo, Perimeter's Michael Duschenes is well aware of the allure of the big city down the road. And for a certain segment of academic talent, Toronto's proximity to Waterloo can come in handy when he's trying to sell them on the quality of life they'll find living 100 kilometres down the 401. The only problem is that great researchers tend to do great research, even when it comes to choosing a home.

"If, at the end of the day, somebody just doesn't want to live in a small town or their spouse doesn't want to live in small town, it's a dealbreaker. It's difficult when the spouse doesn't have enough job opportunities. And, frankly, right now, it's challenging when people find out what public transportation is to Toronto and how long it takes to drive on the 401. So [when it comes to recruiting the best talent], we're in the same boat as everybody else that way."

For academic institutions and tech companies alike, there's no getting around the elephant in the room: Until the region can honestly present itself to the international community as a single, contiguous innovation sector, the promise of tapping into its full potential is stuck in a holding pattern. Put the infrastructure in place that allows people to move freely and productively through that corridor and the tech supercluster will fly.

How many big brains really need to point that out?