November 2009

Building capacity

Growth spurt for Sudbury tech centre

By R. Bergen

The Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) added a little icing to its cake this fall. Even before the centre had the chance to celebrate the grand opening of its new 60,000-square-foot Innovation and Commercialization Centre, it had its coffers topped up another million dollars by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC)  to expand even further.

With its modern industrial labs and office space, NORCAT’s Innovation and Commercialization Centre is designed to enable businesses and entrepreneurs to develop technology and try out new ideas. Also housed under its roof are services and facilities for environmental and occupational health and safety training and consulting, contractor orientation, industrial shops, and a media production house. Offsite, the organization has an operating mine where innovations can be demonstrated and applied.

The $10.6 million cost of the expansion was covered by the federal regional development organization in Ontario (FedNor), Vale Inco, NOHFC, Xstrata, Cambrian College, FNX Mining, Greater Sudbury Utilities and the City of Greater Sudbury. The latest funds from the province will go towards adding more space to house companies that require private, secured space in which to work on bringing new technologies to market, says the company’s CEO Darryl Lake.  He started NORCAT in 1995 in the basement of Cambrian College where he was the Dean of Health Sciences, Trades and Technology.

“Our prime focus is to create jobs for young people,” explains Lake, who says he watched too many of them leave the area looking for opportunity elsewhere. The label of “young” is applied generously, he concedes, but he credits NORCAT with creating over a thousand jobs in the Sudbury area. “There have been 41 companies that we have helped get started,” Lake says, adding that the demand for space has always outpaced supply. “That shows you how vibrant the industry is even in the toughest of tough times.”

Though the collection of enterprises that use the resources at NORCAT has diversified since its founding, the core focus for most residents renting space is mining. “Out of the 14 occupants here, we have a couple of startups, the others are companies that want to innovate  or are changing or improving their product lines to take them global, for example.” The next phase of expansion will provide another three businesses with shop space.

NORCAT helps alleviate some of the financial risk from new project development by providing the launch pad for those who need to rent additional space dedicated to innovation, but who do not want to get locked into long-term leases. One aim, explains Lake, is to ease the entry of companies from outside of Sudbury that want to penetrate the local markets. Early on, Lake says he made sure local real estate brokers and owners understood that the model created a win-win situation. “We explained that what we are trying to do is get companies to innovate and remain stable so they can rent more space. The minute our residents are ready to get into manufacturing we have to part ways.”

That moment can be bittersweet, admits Lake. Of the roughly 100 people working at NORCAT, half are permanent employees and half temporary residents. “It’s a family effort here so when one of our residents ‘grows up’ and wants to leave, we all feel terrible.” The difference now, though, is that the young talent is simply moving out, not moving away.

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