The family of Dr. John Evans, an innovator in both medicine and business, is donating $10-million to the Toronto MaRS Discovery District, a project that he struggled to help get off the ground.
The gift is expected to be revealed at an event in honour of Dr. Evans Thursday evening that will be peppered with Toronto’s business, academic and medical elite, and attended by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The money will be used to create MaRS Solutions Lab, which will be designed to help tackle a range of problems – from the commercialization of medical discoveries to global health issues – while providing opportunities for young Canadians, who will have the chance to become fellows at MaRS.
Dr. Evans played a key role in the creation of MaRS, which aims to create Canada’s next generation of growth companies by offering a place where science, technology and social entrepreneurs can access help.
It's an area that Dr. Evans has long been passionate about. “We had very good scientists, but so little of the science was translated into elements of commercialization,” he said in an interview at MaRS this week, explaining the need for MaRS, which he added has created an environment outside of universities and hospitals where entrepreneurs and innovators have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.
Dr. Evans, who now has Parkinson’s Disease, studied medicine at the University of Toronto and was a Rhodes Scholar. He went on to become the founding dean of what’s now called the McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences. Then, 20 years after receiving his degree from the University of Toronto, he became that school’s president. From there he moved to Washington, where he was the founding director of the World Bank’s population, health and nutrition department. In the late ‘70s he ran for election as a Liberal MP in Toronto’s Rosedale riding, but lost to the city’s former mayor, David Crombie.
Dr. Evans was also the chair of Canadian biotechnology firm Allelix Inc., which went public and eventually merged with NPS, and at various points was chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, Torstar Corp., and Alcan. He has been inducted into both the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
”He has accomplished so much in so many different fields that the breadth of his contribution to our country is, frankly, unparalleled,” said Gordon Nixon, the chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada and chairman of MaRS. “And in addition to all of his accomplishments he gives so much to the community and to younger people, and he does it all in such a gentlemanly manner.”
Dr. Evans’ family, which is donating the $10-million, is no less impressive. Twin sons Michael and Mark were on the Canadian men’s eight rowing team that won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. Both went to work for Goldman Sachs. Mark left the investment bank for the venture capital industry while the Wall Street Journal recently dubbed Michael, who has degrees from Oxford and Princeton, “Goldman Sachs’ New Wonder Boy.”
Another brother, Derek Evans, who was to speak on behalf of the family Thursday evening, is the CEO of Pengrowth Energy Corp., and Timothy Evans, who followed in his father’s medical footsteps, has been an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and is now Dean of a school of public health in Bangladesh. Dr. Evans also has two daughters, Gillian and Willa. He credits his children’s accomplishments to his wife, Gay.
Despite his own accomplishments, Dr. Evans has long “avoided being celebrated with incredible tenacity,” said MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht. His humour, both at public events and in private, tends to be self-deprecating.
”Without the vision that John Evans had for this place it would have been less than half of what we all envisioned,” said Dr. Cal Stiller, a director at MaRS who also played a large role in its creation.
It would have been much easier to create a centre that was affiliated with the University of Toronto or the University Health Network, but “John, right from the beginning, said this must be freestanding, it must be independent,” Dr. Stiller said. He wanted it to be a place that understood what the private sector required.
Dr. Stiller recalls a meeting with notables such as property developer Paul Reichmann and former RBC Capital Markets chairman Tony Fell on the 19th floor of the Ontario Hydro building, during which Dr. Evans “looked down over the five acres that MaRS currently sits on like Moses over the Promised Land.”
But the team couldn’t find the nearly $15-million that it needed to keep the land on which the third phase of the project would have been built.
”Time was running out,” said Dr. Stiller. “With days to go in December of 2003, John Evans came to the offices at 149 College and quietly told us that the Evans family would provide $14.2-million as a bridge loan until we were able to secure funding. The only provision was that nothing was to be said and that the loan was to be anonymous. And it has been, until just now. The Evans family saved our skin.”
But Dr. Evans didn’t get his way in all aspects of MaRS’ development. “John felt that we needed to have a more serious name,” Dr. Stiller recalled.
At one point Dr. Evans was referring to the initiative as the College Corridor Technopolis Project. He became more accepting of the name MaRS after the group of founders, upon giving the subject much thought, made it into an acronym: Medical and Related Sciences.