Yung Wu will be stepping down as CEO of MaRS Discovery District at the end of this year.
The Toronto-based non-profit innovation hub has begun its search for its next leader, and Yung will remain at the organization’s helm during this transition period.
“The MaRS organization has had two great leaders, and now it’s time to find a third great leader.”
– Annette Verschuren, MaRS board chair
A serial entrepreneur and investor, Wu came out of retirement to join MaRS as CEO in November 2017 on a five-year term, citing a desire to give back to Canada, the country he immigrated to after fleeing a military autocracy with his parents.
Over the past five-plus years, Wu guided MaRS through the pandemic, helped MaRS launch its flagship scale-up program, a climate impact program, biotech accelerator, cleantech accelerator, Graphite Ventures, a $100 million private venture capital (VC) fund, and open a new waterfront campus.
In an interview with BetaKit, Wu pointed to the growth that MaRS has seen during his tenure as evidence of the hub’s impact. When he became CEO, there were 1,200 MaRS-supported ventures that employed about 6,000 people. Today, he claimed that number has increased to 1,400 companies that employ more than 32,000—a roughly 500 percent increase headcount-wise. MaRS defines MaRS-supported ventures as any company that has participated in one of its programs, cohorts, or challenges.
A number of industry stakeholders that BetaKit spoke with praised Wu and the work MaRS has done under his leadership.
“Yung has been a key player in the innovation ecosystem in his leadership role at MaRS and has been instrumental in focusing the organization in supporting Canadian entrepreneurs throughout their life cycle journey,” Maverix Private Equity founder and managing partner John Ruffolo told BetaKit. As an “entrepreneur-focused” CEO, Ruffolo argued that Wu was what MaRS needed.
At the same time, others questioned whether federally-backed MaRS has had its intended impact on Canadian tech companies over the past five-plus years, while also acknowledging the difficulties COVID-19 created.
Wu initially planned to step down at the conclusion of his five-year term last October, as the Canadian tech sector had emerged from the pandemic but was also feeling the impact of the economic downturn. Wu said he agreed to stay on for an extra year after MaRS’ board of directors asked him to do so, in order to give MaRS more time to find a new CEO and avoid making a leadership change amid such a tumultuous period for the industry.
MaRS board member Claudette McGowan is leading the innovation hub’s CEO transition committee. MaRS aims to find its next leader by the end of 2023.
Annette Verschuren, chair of MaRS’ board of directors, credited Wu for “modernizing” MaRS’ venture services offerings, while also tripling its net promoter score within the startup community. “The MaRS organization has had two great leaders, and now it’s time to find a third great leader,” Verschuren told BetaKit in an interview.
Verschuren, who was part of the MaRS leadership team that decided to bring Wu on in the first place, noted that this process took nearly a year. “[Wu has] established a very strong framework, a very strong organization, that a new CEO, I think, can get pretty excited about,” she added.
Prior to joining MaRS, Wu built companies in enterprise software, mobile analytics and big data, media and entertainment, tech services, and biotech.
Wu said that Canada “hadn’t yet really developed a launchpad to produce scale-stage companies that could have a higher rate of success” when he joined MaRS. He came on as CEO with the goal of turning the organization into a catalyst for the country’s tech sector.
“MaRS was an unbelievable opportunity to make a difference at a time when Canada can really build around the innovation economy,” said Wu.
During his time as CEO, some of Wu’s work has focused on “modernizing” the venture services, advisory, and venture programming engine within MaRS, while also building up the hub’s brand.
Today, Wu believes that MaRS has had the impact he desired, describing the hub as “synonymous with innovation and commercialization on a national and global basis,” claiming that MaRS is “now the largest innovation hub in North America.”
As to the impact that MaRS has had on the Canadian tech startups it serves, Plum co-founder and CEO Caitlin MacGregor and TealBook founder and CEO Stephany Lapierre said the hub played an important role in both firms’ development. MaRS introduced TealBook to its first institutional investor and a number of advisors, while Plum participated in MaRS programming and landed customers through MaRS, describing the hub as “very beneficial in moving the needle.”
Meanwhile, other industry sources questioned whether MaRS has been able to deliver on its promises, with one citing a lack of “big wins” from the past five years, while also noting that the pandemic may have affected the innovation hub’s impact in recent years.
As an “entrepreneur-focused” CEO, John Ruffolo argued that Yung Wu was what MaRS needed.
Notably, the bulk of Wu’s tenure took place during COVID-19. Wu acknowledged that the pandemic was “hard” for MaRS, as a hub largely known for the physical space it provided to innovation ecosystem players, forcing MaRS to adapt and deliver more of its programming and services online. Wu emphasized that he has been careful to ensure the resilience and financial sustainability of MaRS in its wake.
Speaking to what he plans to do next, Wu noted that he has always been an entrepreneur and investor, noting, “that will likely all be activated again.”
In addition to serving as MaRS CEO, Wu is co-founder of two not-for-profit organizations: the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism and DifferentIsCool. He currently serves on the boards of OMERS, the Toronto Region Board of Trade, and Antibe Therapeutics. Wu is also a member of Green Shield Canada and a Governor in Council appointee to Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body.
After attempting retirement twice previously and failing “miserably” at that, Wu intends to continue dedicating himself to multiple organizations, including his existing board roles, while trying to be as helpful as he can to MaRS from the outside.
Feature image courtesy MaRS Discovery District. Photo of Yung Wu.