March/April 2008

The sky’s the limit

Sudbury-based NORCAT breaking new ground

By A. Gordon

NORCAT CEO Darryl Lake

For the past 13 years, the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) has been dedicated to helping northern Ontario companies in the mining, minerals and other sectors compete in the global marketplace. During that time, their Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) training programs have become widely coveted throughout the mining industry. Furthermore, the centre’s product development division has been responsible for numerous groundbreaking inventions — both literally and figuratively. It has helped small- and medium-sized companies bring innovative ideas from concept to reality that otherwise might never have been developed. If all this was not impressive enough, NORCAT has managed to achieve this while remaining self-sustaining — no easy feat for a not-for-profit corporation.

As the centre begins construction on a new 60,000 square foot commercialized innovation park, scheduled to open in the fall of 2008, the future is certainly looking brighter than ever for both the centre and its hometown of Sudbury. However, as the centre’s CEO Darryl Lake explained, that was not always the case.

“In the early 1990s,mining was at a pretty low point,”recalled Lake. “I was working at Cambrian College at the time and my colleague Glenn Toikka and I were watching most of the graduating students leave to work elsewhere.”Wanting to find a way to bring some of this talent back — and to keep fewer people from leaving in the first place — Lake and several of his colleagues travelled to the United States and Finland to see if anything could be gleaned about helping the smaller companies in mining and other sectors to compete.

Incubating innovation

Lake and his colleagues discovered that having a technological edge was more important than ever for small- and medium- sized companies, especially given the impact of increased consolidation in the mining industry.“With companies like Vale Inco and Xstrata, the playing field has really become global,” said Lake.“In order to serve this wider national and even international market, smaller northern Ontario companies had to offer more if they were to remain competitive.”

However, most of these fledgling companies generally lack the funds and infrastructure necessary for R&D activities. In response to this need, NORCAT established a residency program that would provide access for chosen enterprises and entrepreneurs to prototype expertise, technology advice and reasonably priced space in which to work on new product development. Lake emphasizes that not just anybody makes the cut; prospective companies are carefully screened.

Most of NORCAT’s expertise is derived by engaging outside enterprises on a contractual basis. “We are very fortunate to have access to so much talent within the Sudbury mining community,” he said.“That way,expertise and specialized equipment can be accessed on an as-needed basis.”

Lake said that so far, NORCAT has partnered with more than 83 companies on more than 153 new technologies, of which approximately 80 per cent have been commercialized through small- and medium-sized companies.

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