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Entrepreneurial Community of the Year: Algoma University College

The challenge of every university making its own mark is serving both the community's needs and providing a vibrant and stimulating experience for students once they arrive.

For most of its 50-year existence, Algoma University College (AUC) was a sleepy Liberal Arts college on the shores of the St. Mary's River. It was most distinctive by its spired main building set amidst a bucolic setting in the east end of Sault Ste. Marie.

When Dr. Celia Ross first arrived as a French professor in 1982, Algoma U – as it’s most commonly known – served as an undergraduate feeder college to Sudbury's Laurentian University.

Now, as president of AUC, she oversees its dramatic transformation from a 600-student institution that was once considered too small to survive, into an emerging regional university with new construction, an enrollment of 1,100 students and more than 25 degree programs, many on the cutting edge of new technology.

Its metamorphosis has earned it the Entrepreneurial Community Award from the 2006 Northern Ontario Business Awards.

Through partnerships, Algoma U has become a driving force for community growth in the Sault's emerging science and knowledge-based sector. These days, they have ambitious plans to be a feeder system into the city's two forestry research labs, and to graduate video game designers straight into their own start-up businesses.

A reformulated strategic vision with an entrepreneurial vision and an independent mindset has put AUC on the path to be a full-fledged, stand-alone university.

Determined to blaze their own trail, Algoma U has adopted an 'Open for Business' approach in cultivating partnerships to push projects forward with some real tangible results like the new $6.1 million Information Communication Technology (ICT) building, which opened last year.

The challenge of every university making its own mark is serving both the community's needs and providing a vibrant and stimulating experience for students once they arrive.

Most of all, Algoma U wanted to create its new streams of revenue in unchartered fields to lessen its reliance on government funding.

Their first entrepreneurial foray began in the 1980's with their English-as-a-Second-Language program to recruit international students. Considered outside the bounds of provincial funding, recruiters ensured the program paid for itself. As a break-even venture, the initiative helped lure students to Algoma U, who, once they became English proficient, transferred into their regular degree programs.

Today, Algoma U hosts more than 100 international students from China, Japan and Bangladesh, and maintains two off-site campuses in the Golden Horseshoe area of southern Ontario.

But their biggest international recruiting catch to date was landing one of the world's best and brightest researchers. Last year's arrival of renowned British insect molecular ecologist Dr. Jenny Cory, and the accompanying $1.75 million in federal funding, helped established Algoma U's first Canada Research Chair.

On a broader scale, Algoma U is an active partner in an effort to establish the Sault as a biotechnology hub through the Science Enterprise Algoma project and their plans to commercialize home-grown forestry research.

The university is also a staunch supporter of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and encourages young people to consider health care careers. This year, the campus hosted the first-ever Northern Health Research Conference, sponsored by NOSM.

To Ross, these relationships open doors and expose the campus to the world.

One of those foreign links turned into a major coup in securing the first Masters level degree in computer games technology from the University of Abertay in Scotland. AUC made a valuable connection with the Dundee-based university that resulted in the delivery of the only program of its kind in North America.

Ross says she would embrace greater collaboration with other private sector partners to augment their educational capabilities. She suggests that Ontario should follow Quebec's lead and give tax breaks to companies who want to align themselves with universities and to allow them to set up subsidiaries on campuses.

"That's what Northern Ontario really needs, is tax breaks to knowledge-based companies. Quebec's been very pro-active and boy, does it have quick results."