MaRS’ Salim Teja: Innovation is about making the world a better place
Salim is a founder and ecosystem builder, trading the entrepreneur life to focus on supporting other founders. As the President for Venture Services at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, he impacts over one thousand startups through his work. Read on to see his global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
I got into tech at the beginning of my career and have been there ever since.
I grew up in Edmonton, but went to Western University for the Ivey HBA program. After graduating, I moved to the Bay Area in California, starting my first internet venture when I was 25 – an e-commerce business – in 1998. The company grew to over 100 employees and $70 million in revenue, and the experience taught me and my two partners a lot about building a high growth tech company.
It was a great opportunity for me, and after it was done in 2003, I moved back to Canada to become a VC at Brightspark Capital. I had the opportunity this time to invest in seed stage software and internet companies, which was an interesting switch to have the investor perspective instead of the founder perspective I had while building my own company.
Then I moved into the corporate innovation world, taking both my founder and investor mindset to help Indigo Books and Music take on the digital world in 2008. The company wanted to become more aggressive in digital innovation, so we looked to develop additional business models and categories in order to change both the in-store and online experience.
After that, I moved to MaRS in 2012. I saw an opportunity to use my experience from all three areas of my career – founder, investor, and corporate innovation – to help build startup communities and support new founders.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
My goal would be to show them the buzz of how our major institutions are making global waves. I’d also want to showcase the talent we have in the city.
Thinking of that, I’d show them SickKids and UHN to show off the health innovation in Toronto. We’d then move to the Vector Institute so they could see how we are pushing forward in AI. After, we’d tour hubs like MaRS, the Ryerson DMZ, and OneEleven to showcase the entrepreneurial experience of Toronto.
Then, of course, I’d want to show them the vibrancy of the downtown core, showing the diversity we have both in terms of work and play here in Toronto.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
Both #DiversityIsOurStrength and #ItsOurTime.
Diversity is important because it shapes the values of the city and the people who live in the city. At a time in the world right now with such fast geopolitical changes, Toronto has an opportunity to the world show our unique values at a time when other countries are working hard to solidify what they value in the world.
Thinking about those geopolitical shifts is causing a lot of global interest in Toronto from corporates who want to see what’s unique, from investors looking to add growth capital, and from the media who is just now trying to better understand Canada’s narrative.
We have a window in the next 3-5 years to put Toronto on the map in a big way, allowing us to join the global dialogue as it relates to innovation, economics, quality of life, and politics. We want Canada to have a say at that table, and now people are open to listening.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea is that we should be feeling excited about the ambitious entrepreneurs and breakthrough ideas that we have in our communities.
Innovation is not just about business, but also making the world a better place. For instance, we are doing a lot of work with companies on energy and environmental innovation at MaRS, while at the same time looking at changing the nature of work to be more people-focused.
As the global conversation grows around climate change and other political or environmental issues, innovative companies are working to solve those major problems.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
The world should know that Toronto has incredibly ambitious entrepreneurs who are tackling major opportunities in multiple industries.
However, we tackle these problems with our own brand of innovation that focuses on doing well, but also doing good. We don’t have the same story as other tech hubs, and it’s because we are solidifying a tech identity that reflects Canada’s brand and values, not someone else’s.