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The House that Darryl Built

If you live in the newspaper business an occupational hazard is called the “grip and grin”.
Michael R. Atkins



If you live in the newspaper business an occupational hazard is called the “grip and grin”. This is the opportunity for your loyal servant to take a picture of the mayor, a member of city council, a provincial MPP or a federal MP, shaking somebody’s hand who has just received a grant to build a snowmobile trail or do a tourism study. Others that take on this time honoured ritual include service clubs that donate money to the hospital, the mayor declaring Groundhog Day, the volunteer fire department getting a new truck, or someone who has just walked or biked, or jogged across the city or the province to raise money for an important charity.

All of this is important and of course it is particularly important to the donor or receiver and their network of friends and supporters. On the other hand, it is not breaking news.

No matter how much people claim they want happy news, they vote with their feet and gravitate to conflict.  We are drawn to drama, intrigue, and controversy, unless of course, we're in the picture.

Last week I threw all my hard-nosed news knowledge out the window and found myself unabashedly hoping for a grip and grin. The occasion was the official opening of the new NORCAT (the Northern Center for Advanced Technology) building in Sudbury. This 60,000 square-foot innovation and commercialization center is the culmination of nearly 15 years of blood, sweat and tears and, in my entirely unbiased opinion, was compelling good news. 

NORCAT is the brainchild of Darryl Lake. A former teacher at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Darryl became frustrated with the number of students who had to leave the North to find challenging work. He has dedicated his life to changing that trend and he has made a dent. More importantly, he has proven you can change history if you put your mind to it.

The formula is quite straight forward. In Northern Ontario, we have industrial strength, small- and medium-sized businesses that have grown up serving our major resource companies and they have products that can be improved upon or new ones that can be built that have never had the time or budget to grow.  Our future rests on their ability to transcend their local success and reach for the stars. This change in perspective can open the door to international trade as our products are redesigned and improved upon and repurposed to new industries. The trick is to help our small business base aspire to greatness in tangible ways that will build the economy and provide a more sustainable economy based on innovation and not on a finite commodity.

A second role for NORCAT has been to bring together big business with small business, to make sure we know what they need and have first crack at providing the solution.

A third tenet has been to think big. NORCAT has lead the way in discovering that mining materials handling equipment invented in Sudbury can be miniaturized and rethought as equipment used to handle materials a world away on Mars and the moon. Somebody has to think this stuff up and have the chutzpa to make the call. NORCAT, with its Canadian SMEs (Small- and medium-sized enterprises) is doing millions of dollars of work with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency that wouldn’t have happened if Darryl hadn’t been upset to see Northern kids go south.

The most recent addition to Darryl’s dream has been a building that would house all this creative energy.

As I said to those who attended the opening last week, “As you walk around this building, think of it as a beehive.

It is an institute of higher learning without the professors; it is an MBA program without the case studies;  it is a locker room without the shoulder pads; it is an economic town square without the clock. When you book your space in this building the currency is energy, ideas and ambition. You come here to expand your business and your horizons. You come here to innovate, to connect with other like-minded people, and to cheer them on. When you come here you are dealing yourself in. When you come here you know you belong to a fraternity of creative people who want to grow and prosper. When you come into this building you are building Northern Ontario.

This is what Darryl has created.

Michael Atkins is the chair of NORCAT and president of Laurentian Media Group.