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MaRS Discovery District's CEO Ilse Treurnicht is photographed in Toronto, Thursday October 8/2015.

The long-time CEO of Toronto's MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treurnicht, has informed its board she will be stepping down as of June, 2017, ending a 12-year run at the head of the non-profit innovation hub funded primarily by the province.

Ms. Treurnicht says she and the board had been discussing succession planning at the same time as a new strategic plan had been in development. The decision to formalize her exit and the final shape of that plan were agreed at a board meeting that coincided with Tuesday's annual general meeting.

"It's so the right time for MaRS and the right time for me," Ms. Treurnicht said in an interview. She has been CEO of MaRS since 2005 and says she has no idea what she'll do next. "I haven't had much time to think about it."

Canadian business veterans Gord Nixon (chair of MaRS board of directors) and Richard Ivey (chair of the board's governance and HR committees) will lead the search and selection committee for the next CEO.

In a statement released by MaRS, Mr. Nixon praised Ms. Treurnicht's tenure: "Over the past decade, MaRS has grown from a big idea into a flourishing urban innovation hub that is viewed as a model by leading cities around the world. Ilse's vision, leadership and unwavering commitment has transformed MaRS into an organization that plays a critical role in fostering innovation and scaling it for impact in Canada and beyond."

MaRS became a hot topic in the 2014 provincial election when it was revealed that the government had loaned the entity $224-million to save a plan to build a new office tower at University Avenue and College Street in Toronto.

MaRS was unable to lease enough space to self-finance the deal after a U.S. investor came under financial pressure during the credit crisis of 2008. An Ontario auditor-general report later cited a "lack of transparency" as one of the key faults with the deal, which ended up costing more than $309-million after the province agreed to buy out Alexandria Real Estate's interest in the project.

MaRS has added a number of new board members and signed more tenants to the tower since 2014, and now says the once-troubled Phase 2 tower is 90 per cent leased by tenants that include Facebook Canada's head office, not to mention a Johnson & Johnson innovation lab. The centre has also announced a number of partnerships, such as dealing with McCarthy Tétrault on legal innovation and a number of fintech-related partnerships.

According to Ms. Treurnicht, the latest economic impact survey suggests companies associated with MaRS have raised $2.6-billion in capital over the life of its operations, and have earned $1.25-billion in revenue.

The timing for Ms. Treurnicht's departure is curious given the simultaneous approval of a new strategic plan she helped to fashion. Still, she denied there was any pressure from the board to leave.

"We're not changing drastically direction, we're on a steady climb. This is a very much a data- and evidence-based process we've been through," she says. "Whoever comes in next will take that plan and all the inputs and make it better.

"I'm still here for a while, so as I said it's back to work for us and our team. We all feel extremely upbeat about what's ahead."

Prior to joining MaRS, Ms. Treurnicht was for six years CEO of Toronto's Primaxis Technology Ventures. She was a Rhodes scholar and earned a Phd in chemistry from the University of Oxford and did her chemistry undergrad at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.

Follow Shane Dingman on Twitter: @shanedingmanOpens in a new window

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