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NORCAT, on bidding adieu

I met Darryl Lake around 40 years ago. He was the dean of Health Sciences and Technology at Cambrian College and I was in the early years of publishing Northern Life newspaper in Sudbury.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

I met Darryl Lake around 40 years ago. He was the dean of Health Sciences and Technology at Cambrian College and I was in the early years of publishing Northern Life newspaper in Sudbury. We came together in 1978 around the idea of Sudbury 2001 along with thousands of other Sudburians who left their politics at the door and volunteered to help Sudbury insulate itself from massive layoffs and what looked like a very large economic cliff.

One of the outcrops of the spirit of “2001” was the idea of the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT).

The idea came from Mike Harris (yes, that Mike Harris) who was sitting around drinking scotch in Elliot Lake with Darryl and Jim Gordon (mayor of Sudbury, Tory MPP, etc.)

They were serving as members of the Centre for Resource Machinery Technology at the time. The premier-in-waiting thought Darryl should establish an MIT of the North; a tech centre.

It would be many years later that Darryl and Glen Crombie (then president of Cambrian College) would attend a lecture in Toronto about how Durham College was setting up a tech centre in southern Ontario.

They walked out of that meeting and decided they would do their own.

I met Don Duval 25 years later in a hermetically sealed boardroom in Toronto.

I was the chair of NORCAT at the time and we were looking for Darryl’s successor as president of NORCAT.

At the time, Don was the globe-trotting vice-president of Strategy and Operations for the MaRS Discovery District ( in Toronto.

Here’s how he described his job: “Create a globally significant urban innovation hub to make Canada more competitive on the global stage through sustainable job and wealth creation in technology startups across a multitude of industries.”

Interestingly, Don had done a lot of work with MIT and was on the board of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the renamed and imagined tech centre Durham college had set up so many years ago.

I would be lying if we didn’t think for a moment after meeting Don, “So why would this urban cowboy at the top of the economic development food chain consider coming to our modest little operation in Sudbury?”

We recovered quickly and questioned him about his skills and talents and why we should give him the opportunity to step up and a get a real job.

It didn’t take much convincing. It’s what he wanted to do.

Darryl’s true love was teaching, followed by raising money for good works. To build on NORCAT’s independence and bravado, Darryl raised $12 million to build the NORCAT Innovation and Commercialization Park.

He went to see Fred Stanford at Inco to become the major sponsor and walked out with $2 million. Tony Clement at FedNor matched it.

Darryl had dinner one night with Warren Holmes, then president of Falconbridge Mines. Before tucking into their food, Warren said, “All right. What do you want?”

Darryl said, “I want one of your mines — Fecunis will do.” “OK, let’s eat.”

And so came two milestones at NORCAT. An operating mine to train miners and test technology and a new building to breed innovation. No one else in Canada has their own mine.

Under Don’s leadership, NORCAT is doing training and development globally utilizing classroom-based training and online offerings, simulator training and underground training in Warren’s old mine.

NORCAT is the fastest growing tech centre in Ontario, and with the new Fortin Discovery Lab, where you can walk in the front door with an idea and out the back door with a product.?

It’s one of the most sophisticated advanced manufacturing labs in the country.

The lab consists of tech startups helping tech startups.

It’s a long way from that drink in Elliot Lake.

The key for me has been the passion that fueled the startup, the succession plan that worked, the investments from an enlightened private sector and government that made it happen, the relentless creative hard work of the employees from day one, a board that manoeuvred through the dramas of establishing something that did not exist before, and two leaders who couldn’t be more different or more effective in their roles.

This month I step down. It’s been a slice.