“Pay It Forward”

I often tell people that I have one of the best jobs in the city.

In my capacity as CEO for Western’s Research Parks, the London Medical Network, and three separate Western subsidiaries, I enjoy the privilege of routinely engaging with global business leaders, promising local entrepreneurs, and the brightest scientific minds.  I am also fortunate to work in the heart of an impressive university campus, complete with a renowned faculty, a comprehensive curriculum and one of the most intelligent, diverse student populations in the country.

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending Western University’s 309th convocation, where I was invited to share in the recognition of Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, the CEO at MaRS Discovery District and a dear friend of mine, who was bestowed a Honourary Doctorate by the University’s Senate.  It was an event well worth attending for two reasons.

London’s Greatest Assets

First, it reminded me of the considerable importance of London’s five post-secondary educational institutions to our community.

It is estimated that between Western University, Fanshawe College, King’s College, Huron College and, Brescia College, these educational stalwarts will collectively graduate over 12,000 students this year, a class that includes an impressive cache of doctors and scientists, engineers and technicians, artists and musicians, nurses and nutritionists, lawyers and leaders, all looking to build a better life for themselves and the world around them.

This academic throughput is a powerful testimonial to the value of these institutions to our society and our economy.

For example, last year, both Western and Fanshawe released independently-quantified Economic Impact Studies that estimated the economic contribution of both institutions to London’s economy exceeds $10 million annually, with nearly half of that coming from the students.  It is a startling amount, and one that should never be taken for granted in these changing and increasingly competitive times in the education sector.

It is also worth noting the incredible diversity reflected in each graduating class is both impressive and increasing.  This past year’s graduating class from Western was once again comprised of more female graduates than male, and included an array of students from an estimated 60 different countries from around the globe.

All of these graduates become potential contributors to our global society and where possible, our local economy.

This leads me to my second point.

In order to capitalize on the life-enriching and wealth-generating opportunities associated with each new graduating class, we must continue to pay it forward.

London’s Greatest Opportunities

The expression “Pay it Forward” refers to the process of repaying a good deed not back to the originating benefactor, but forward to the benefit of a future need.

During her commencement remarks, Dr. Treurnicht encouraged the graduates to be “long-term investors in the experiment of their lives, to be patient, to understand that nothing truly worthwhile happens instantly, and to focus on things that have enduring value”.

When I consider the role of our City Council, I believe that the same sage advice applies.  And I am encouraged by “Pay it Forward” business development and graduate retention decisions made years ago, that are now manifesting themselves into stunning successes.

For example, a Council investment decision in 2001 led to the construction and commissioning of the Stiller Centre for Biotechnology Commercialization three years later.  The Stiller Centre, which struggled in its early years, now operates at 100-percent occupancy, chockfull of early-stage companies that are often owned and/or operated by graduates of London’s post-secondary institutions. Moreover, a decision by the City, the Stiller leadership team and my predecessors at the Park to integrate the Centre within the broader Park infrastructure has contributed to Western Research Parks and its tenants routinely being ranked among the top research, development and commercialization (RD&C) centres in the world today.

Similarly, a Council investment decision in 2009 to develop an Advanced Manufacturing Park on the city’s south side, is now home to an array of world-class environmental engineering and testing enterprises.  It is also the first Park of its kind to be shared by both the University and a College, as its designers sought to anticipate and accommodate the growing convergence between university and college developed skill sets.

Yet another example is Council’s decision in 2012 to financially underwrite the creation of the London Medical Network, a private-public sector led partnership that is now guiding London’s evolution from a regional medical centre into a globally-recognized hub for medical innovation.  Such a transformation will surely take a number of years and much more investment, but the process is underway and the opportunities for the partners to pay it forward are limitless.

Even Dr. Treurnicht’s own MaRS Discovery District, which I consider Canada’s innovation headquarters, arose from an old dilapidated hospital in downtown Toronto 20 years ago, into a gleaming new enterprise that is home to hundreds of proven and promising technology companies, thousands of high-tech employees and millions of dollars in economic value.

The Million Dollar Question

Which leads to me to a key question for this Council.  What is Council’s plan to recruit and retain even more of this impressive talent outputted by our post-secondary partners?  What is going to be its “Pay it Forward” business development investment?   What long term business decisions will they make today to help shape the economy of tomorrow?  Fortunately for them, they still have 18 months to decide.

I know what I would do today.  However, I hope you’ll appreciate that I might like to leave a few of my ideas in my desk drawer at least for now, so that I have something of meaning to offer our city should I decide to enter the race next year.

In the meantime, I hope that we all will continue to appreciate London’s greatest assets and find ways to pay forward into London’s greatest opportunities; even if the returns are neither immediate nor recognizable.  After all, if recent results from similar investments made long ago can serve as a reasonable predictor of future outcomes, then such investments not only make good business sense, but the long term economic success of our city depends upon them.