Billionaire investor Gerald Schwartz and Indigo chief executive Heather Reisman announced Monday that they will donate $100-million to the University of Toronto for the construction of a new centre for innovation and entrepreneurship as well as an institute that will study the impact of emerging technologies on society.
The gift is the largest in the university’s history.
The new centre will provide space for students and faculty working in the fields of business, computer science and biotechnology among others. It aims to assemble scholars and entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds to fuel creative problem solving and research.
Mr. Schwartz, the CEO of Onex Corp., one of Canada’s most successful private-equity firms, and Ms. Reisman, whose chain of booksellers is the largest in the country, said they approached the university with the idea last year. The couple was quickly invited to meet with university president Meric Gertler.
“We read an article together about this bold ambition the university had to create a new complex that would be devoted to the whole subject of technology and innovation,” Ms. Reisman said. “The things that they talked about housing there were things we were interested in – the Vector Institute [for Artificial Intelligence], the Creative Destruction Lab, the entrepreneurs. We looked at each other and said ‘We’d like to support that.’"
Mr. Gertler said the gift is affirmation of the role the university plays in innovation in fields such as machine learning, gene editing and regenerative medicine.
“There are very few gifts across the country that have been this big,” Mr. Gertler said. “It draws on U of T’s world class strength, both in machine learning and the ethics and philosophy of technological change and its impact on society.”
The new centre will be built in two phases. The first, a 12-storey tower at College Street and Queen’s Park Avenue, is scheduled to begin construction later this year. The second, a 20-storey tower, will follow. The university’s 10 business incubators are already bursting at the seams, Mr. Gertler said, and the need for more space is an indication of the burgeoning interest in entrepreneurship, which has gone from an option of last resort to a leading aspiration for students.
Mr. Gertler described the site for the new Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre as symbolically significant because it’s where the campus meets the city, just across from the MARS Discovery District, at the top of University Avenue’s hospital row and adjacent to the provincial government.
“This really is an important building for us to demonstrate our commitment to engage the city around us," Mr. Gertler said. “We want it to be accessible and open and transparent at street level because we want to entice and invite the residents of the city into the building.”
Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Reisman said they are fascinated by the prospects not only for entrepreneurs and scientists, but also for scholars in fields such as law, philosophy and the social sciences to study technology’s impact on the way we live.
“Heather had the idea that with this wonderful mass being put together to deal with technological innovation we should add to that the study of the impact on society of all this innovation,” Mr. Schwartz said.
“It is the demand of our time. The pace of technological innovation is so much faster than our own human ability to adapt to it,” Ms. Reisman added.
Gillian Hadfield, a professor in both law and management, said it’s exciting to imagine how the new Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society could encourage scholars to think differently all across the university about the challenges and opportunities posed by new technologies.
The institute will be modelled in part on the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, Calif., said Prof. Hadfield, who is an affiliate of the Vector Institute. Scholars could come for a few months and be surrounded by people working in various aspects of the new technology, as well as by thinkers from other disciplines who offer different perspectives.
“In my view, the sign of great success for this would be whole new fields of research. But certainly new ideas. How are we going to manage artificial intelligence and privacy? We’ve got ways of thinking about that in law, in philosophy and ethics, we’ve got policy solutions maybe, but have we really dug into what it means about knowledge and who owns it?” Prof. Hadfield said.
Neither Mr. Schwartz nor Ms. Reisman studied at the University of Toronto, but Mr. Schwartz spent many years on its governing council and received an honorary doctorate in 2016.