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Entrepreneurial Community of the Year: Northern Centre for Advanced Technology

“If you want to fly anywhere in the world and see what’s next in mining, you get off the plane in Sudbury.”

If there’s a mantra to be followed at the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) it might be: What’s next?

Since its founding in 1995, the Sudbury not-for-profit innovation centre has created, nurtured and celebrated a culture of innovation, safety, and efficiency and promoted an entrepreneurial mindset that’s made it one of the cornerstones of Sudbury’s robust mining supply sector.

When Don Duval was tapped as the successor to retiring founder and CEO Darryl Lake in 2012, his knowledge of the city, the organization, and its role in the community was “very limited on all fronts.”

But the former executive from Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District was up for the challenge to raise the bar and take NORCAT to the “next level of excellence.”

To many in the mining industry, NORCAT has been the go-to place for skills development, health and safety training, and has been a test bed for product development and commercialization.

Duval was given a free hand to open the doors at NORCAT a bit wider to a greater spectrum of client companies.

Its 70,000-square-foot Maley Drive building, branded as the Innovation Mill, is where technology startups are shepherded through their formative stages, where established companies seek advice on scaling up, and international firms come to test new products.

Half of NORCAT’s client companies are in mining, “but we also work with a myriad of advanced manufacturing, medical device diagnostics, online and social media businesses, and software and gaming companies,” said Duval, who fosters much of the networking between companies and entrepreneurs.

“It’s pretty magical to watch a medical device startup company talking to a minetech company talking to a clean-tech company. They borrow and steal ideas because they’re not in direct competition.”

Duval calls the Innovation Mill one of the fastest growing regional innovation centres in Canada with an angel investor community that’s sunk $2.5 million in an array of tech startups in the last year and a half.

Their client companies have created 60 new jobs in the last year, a figure he expects to grow dramatically.

But NORCAT hasn’t strayed too far from its mining roots. Sudbury is still the world’s globally eminent mining technology cluster, said Duval.

“If you want to fly anywhere in the world and see what’s next in mining, you get off the plane in Sudbury.”

With help from private and public funders, NORCAT invested north of $3 million in its Underground Centre, a former Falconbridge mine used by local and multinational companies to develop and showcase their products.

“We’re on our way to becoming a worldclass, if not the global leader, in hands-on mine skills training,” said Duval, with programming that’s offered to clients across North America, Africa and South America.

They’ve built a state-of-the-art mining equipment simulation training centre through a partnership with Sandvik. “We have the world’s first digital interactive underground operating mine to use Avatarbased training and virtual reality training,” said Duval, with the recent launch of Ferdeno, the first interactive play-based learning game for underground mining.

“We think this is a huge market, especially for the millennial and younger generation entering the workforce,” said Duval.

In the coming years, he hopes to expand on a client base that includes Vale, Glencore, Goldcorp, Suncor, Ontario Power Generation, Redpath, Cementation, Barrick Gold, Stantec, Hatch Engineering and Sudbury’s Health Sciences North.

“We want to continue to be the gold standard, the global leader in all that is training for all facets of underground and surface mining. We have a great global brand now but we know we can do more and do better.”

This fall, NORCAT expects to announce that one of the world’s largest diamond drilling companies will be setting up their North American testing and development shop at their facility, with many more such partnerships in the pipeline, he said.

“We’re going to hit it out of the park in the coming years. I guarantee it.”