Yung Wu says he was happily retired when he got the call to consider being the new CEO of MaRS Discovery District (MaRS). "This is probably the only thing that could have pulled me out of retirement," he said humbly on a recent Tuesday morning. "This is a country I owe everything to. I'm an immigrant; we won the lottery when I came from Taiwan. This is a chance to give back to the community and country that I can source every one of my opportunities through."
YouInc spoke with Wu, as he entered his third month in the role about what kind of CEO he wants to be, how to keep attracting world-class talent to Canada, and the trait he says will propel entrepreneurs to success:
YI: Looking back on your career did you ever think you'd be leading innovation in Canada?
YW: I didn't think I'd ever become a pseudo public servant. I spent my life building private and public companies, but none that really have a stakeholder map as big as MaRS. I asked my wife, and my muse, Katrina, which I always do, and she said, "you have to go in and do this--this is a situation, where the platform itself has massive scale." MaRS itself is arguably one of the world's largest innovation hubs. It's dead center in what I do. It has the largest amount of high-quality ventures of any innovation hub right now. So, when I think of the opportunity of this platform, and the global window of opportunity for Canada, there's really something special that can happen in the next few years.
YI: What kind of CEO do you want to be?
YW: I'm probably past the stage of wanting to be any other CEO than I already am. As a CEO of the innovation economy--let's call it that--it's all about harnessing talent. You have to create an environment, which is inclusive. You have to create an environment that's about meritocracy. You have to create an environment where people literally would love to come [to Canada].
I've always believed the best way to build companies is to find the best, figure out what they do great, and then build around that, instead of looking for job descriptions that you can slot people into.
When I think of the opportunity of this platform, and the global window of opportunity for Canada, there's really something special that can happen in the next few years.
YI: You've said there's a unique window of opportunity to make Canada an international destination for founders. Why now?
YW: Canada has always been a great source of innovation, but also talent. It's one of those exports I'd dearly love to see change from an exporter of talent to an importer of talent.
In all the years I've built and grown my own companies, I've never seen talent flow from south of the border to north of the border. It's always been reverse. We've always been fighting the brain drain of our best and brightest. We're seeing some really top-notch researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs, who are choosing to come to Canada as opposed to the U.S., or coming from the U.S. to Canada, which is startling.
YI: How do you think MaRS could better support small business owners, who face the emotional and financial realities of tax increases in Canada?
YW: I can only speak personally. I've never veered from building my own companies in Canada. Tax was never a driver for me. I get that there's a cost of living in a country like this, so I'm fine with contributing. Having said that, tax is an absolute economic and economic policy development instrument, so when governments think about how to use that instrument, I would encourage them to attract the best and the brightest, and to eliminate every single downgrade that could prevent talent from coming here. The innovation economy more than any economy is driven by people. We have to create a situation where this place becomes a magnet for people. That has to be the way we build the future of the country.
YI: What trait will propel entrepreneurs to success more than others?
YW: To be an entrepreneur is not just about the initial excitement of the idea, it's about being able to hang in there when no one else can see your way. It's about being able to continue to fight when things aren't going your way, and to inspire a team to stay in the game with you. Cycles always go up and down. There's no such thing as an overnight success.
It's also about being bold for Canada. We're a humble nation. We don't like to talk about our successes. So, while it's great to be humble, we should always be looking for a win on a global stage. Canada is a large geographical base with a small population, so of course we're great at inventing stuff, but we have to be the ones to commercialize.
We have to create a situation where this place becomes a magnet for people. That has to be the way we build the future of the country.
YI: How will you define success this year?
YW: There are more than 1000 companies in the MaRS ecosystem, and a fair number working at scale--somewhere between $5-million and $50-million in revenue, with more than 100 people. These companies are ready for the global stage, which means they're attracting an enormous amount of capital to the city--talent is flowing, and they're creating global partnerships. So, a win for MaRS and a win for me, would be to see our most promising ventures make those moves globally.