Unpacking what went into the rapid trajectory of a successful Canadian university 

03-10-23 USAf 0 comment

The successful ecosystem-enabling experiences that drive social innovation and entrepreneurship at a Canadian university were shared with South African institutions and stakeholders at the 7th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue this month.

Housed within Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), the dialogue set out to deliberate on four thematic areas: research and innovation impact, student mobility, social mobilisation and entrepreneurship for social impact, as well as transformative internationalisation.

Speaking to the topic Advancing social innovation and entrepreneurship for societal impact, Professor Steven Liss (less), Vice President Research and Innovation at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) in Canada, narrated a story of a 30-year trajectory of “tremendous growth”.

He was presenting alongside another professor from Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, within the Dialogue segment titled ‘Social innovation and entrepreneurship for societal impact: Creating an enabling ecosystem for social innovation and entrepreneurship at universities.’

Embedding the institution in its regional context is vital 

Professor Liss explained that growth at TMU had been advanced by the intentional and deep relationships developed by faculty, students and staff, all contributing to a thriving research environment.

He said: “A successful university of the 21st century is measured by the depth, breadth and sustainability of its partnerships and collaborations regionally, nationally and globally. The extent to which the university is integrated into the socio- economic fabric of its region and country will be an important feature of these relationships.”

Institutions could achieve this critical integration by focusing on people and communities, involving them in a range of capacities and engaging with them through consultations and advisory roles to ensure these vital connections are formed, and sustained.

Depicted are two of Toronto Metropolitan University’s defining buildings – the Mattamy Athletic Centre (located at the historical site of Maple Leaf Gardens) and the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre.


TMU opened with 250 students in 1948 to upskill tradespeople following World War II.

Over the next four decades they increased the range of programmes and became a polytechnic. They began granting degrees in 1971, gained university status in 1993 and began granting graduate degrees and engaging in advanced research in 2002. 

Within 15 years, TMU had shifted from primarily undergraduate to comprehensive due to its growth and research activity, tripling its research funding between 2017 and 2022. Said Professor Liss: “We continue to push for excellence in our offerings, opening the Lincoln Alexander School of Law in 2020. The new School of Medicine will welcome its inaugural class in 2025, shifting TMU from a comprehensive university to a medical doctoral university.”

Current status

Today, TMU, enrolling more than 40 000 students, offers 62 undergraduate and 55 graduate programmes. The Canadian scholar attributed these milestones to exceptional people, the connections nurtured and the dedication to TMU’s special purpose of bettering society.

“We seek to connect with and contribute to our community. Our researchers partner with groups such as municipal governments and health care organisations – allowing for research and opportunity to be deployed in real world settings and to actively inform policy.

“We are city builders from our respected School of Urban and Regional Planning enhancing downtown Toronto — where the university is located — with the ongoing addition of signature buildings.” The community is served by meeting their revolving needs while TMU’s commitment to societal good is enshrined in its founding legislation that guides the goal agenda. 

TMU is immersed in its surrounding community. Depicted are four photos illustrating (starting top left and moving clockwise), the TMU Urban Rooftop Farm, students in front of an on-campus voting location, community members at Yonge-Dundas intersection and two students in TMU’s Institute for Biomedical Engineering.

The Strategic Plan

“We’ve developed a strategic research vision based on that purpose and our value. We use that vision to further our agenda by identifying key areas of focus and forming relationships that will support our goals and continue TMU’s long history of innovation. 

“This strategic vision is supported by a suite of plans including our strategic research plan which sets our research priorities identifying four topics of interest.”

TMU’s plan highlights the need to engage and collaborate on local, national and international scales, working with other academic institutions, governments, non-profits, community-based organisations and industry. It is an agile framework to assess, respond to and position TMU to opportunities that further its goals. 

“By using the strategic research plan as a tool, we can determine our strengths and weaknesses, and it has helped us to better understand ourselves. Our medical school journey was sparked when we realised that 44% of our research relates to health and wellbeing. This led to the development of a separate health strategy,” said Professor Liss.

The value of planning

He said the importance of planning lay in creating a living document that allowed one to reflect and return to and guide and engage, not just about where one was setting out to get to, but how one makes progress along the way. Planning also helped to set the stage for a framework for implementation, resource requirements and the steps that needed to be taken to ensure that plan was successful. 

As a plan was subject to change, self-discipline was important as the plan also revealed what one is truly good at.

School of Medicine

Regarding the School of Medicine, from nursing to bio-medical engineering, TMU had a depth of expertise and partnerships already in place and so began to scale up and accelerate this field, creating a health research strategy.

TMU had to create a narrative to distinguish itself from a group of medical schools with a longer historical record of accomplishments. Professor Liss served as chair of the first phase of this planning which, from the early stages, included community engagement and outreach activities. 


They consulted with stakeholder groups, using collected feedback to inform their action plans. As 2025 approaches they’ve formed a number of advisory committees to continue that engagement and ensure the medical school is built with communities it will serve – from local residents to future students.

“By encouraging and enabling a wide variety of collaborations, staying true to our guiding values and using strategic planning tools, TMU is maximising its research impact that advances its evidence-based solutions for the benefit of all.”

Living its values meant addressing a legacy of harms impacting some of the Toronto Metropolitan University community members as a result of the previous name Ryerson University, and a legacy of commemorating the namesake Egerton Ryerson on campus.

“This was not an easy process but an important one. An approach was validated by the extensive public feedback gathered by a taskforce which studied the legacy and the need to change the name, providing support for the advancement of the historically under-represented populations on our campus – and historically disadvantaged populations including indigenous and black communities.”  

TMU – the next chapter

This has laid the foundation for TMU’s next chapter offering a unique and challenging opportunity to take a new course, one that is aligned with TMU’s long-held values. TMU researchers demonstrate regularly how important a community’s connections are. One of its strengths is its ability to attract a range of outstanding, diverse faculty staff and students, enriching its research ecosystems with their perspectives. 

TMU was recently the recipient of $100-m research funding for a programme supported by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) Award. This award supports bridging divides and focuses on migration integration in the 21st century, addressing migration integration as an area of global interest.

This research programme brings together more than 100 scholars from 200 organisations. 

Professor Liss said they established where they were excellent at, built on that and established a world leading research programme.

Migration research

A growing group of leading migration researchers led to the founding of Toronto Metropolitan Centre for Immigration and Settlement which continues to be a leader in the exploration of international migration, integration, and diaspora refugee studies.  TMU was awarded a Canada research chair in migration integration in 2019 – its application was the only one focused on social sciences in the humanities.

New programmes

The establishment of leadership and to-market programmes support research from graduate programmes ‘in the laboratory’ and across the university.  “Underserved communities can participate fully in the labour market keeping Canada competitive in a global economy. We have intractable problems like climate change, global health related issues and an innovative ecosystem that depends on global collaboration and engagement. We need to support people moving across the world, to be supportive of brain circulation.”

Zone learning

In addition to driving innovation by leveraging community connections, TMU explicitly encourages entrepreneurial activity such as commercialisation, technologies, offering start-up support – particularly directed towards undergraduate students and community partners.

“This robust start-up ecosystem goes beyond serving students and offers opportunities to the next generation of entrepreneurs – through courses such as technology and mentorship. More than 10 different Zones each have an individual focus to accelerate solutions to pressing global issues such as clean energy or bio-medical technology.

“This includes our DMZ – Digital Media Zone, ranked the number one based incubator in the world and which now plays a leadership role in the rankings of other institutions.” The DMZ has a world-wide presence operating an extensive global incubator network. This Zone is designed to support entrepreneurs in underserved communities. Its programmes are run by black-owned tech start-ups with additional programming, mentorship, connection to industry and more.

Also, the Women Founder’s Programme identifies women innovators who receive specialised support from DMZ programmes. “Developing relationships with intentionality and purpose, guided by planning and values, TMU has created an active and robust innovation ecosystem.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.