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OPINION: A business culture revolution in Sudbury

Sudbury is now a player in the digital innovator economy.
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michael_atkins
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

I sold a company last month and actually got more money back than I invested. This, I can assure you, doesn't always happen to me or anyone else in the angel investing business. 

It started 12 years ago in Sudbury when three lads walked into my office on Elgin Street and said they had an idea. They were Scott Brooks, Bernie Aho, and Chris Daoust. An evangelist, a designer and innovator, and a programmer. They were all employed at different companies but promised to quit and set to work forthwith on their idea if I put up the money. 

Within weeks we found ourselves on the top floor of the old Silverman’s department store on Elm Street not far from where I had sold my first major advertising contract for our weekly newspaper 30 years earlier. The new baby was called ConceptShare and it proposed to invent a way to revolutionize, review and approve marketing and creative material. It did. Check it out at www.conceptshare.com if you are interested.

To come was investment from a group headed up by Sudbury physician Dennis Reich and Nish Patel, a refugee from Corel in Ottawa, who became our president and carried us over the finish line 10 years later.

It didn't come easy, and it didn't come quick, but in the end, determination, talent, patience, faith, government support (SRED tax credits), a digitally savvy bank (BDC), and luck (our team made much of it) put us over the top.

Like many digital startups, there was a time when no one was getting paid as we leaped from one iteration to another, and the key phrase became “pivot, don't panic.”

At the time, it was a little solitary in the digital space in Sudbury. There has been a revolution in the last 15 years as Sudbury moved from an economy suffocated by big business and big labour to one increasingly dominated by innovation and risk-taking.

Three things have happened in Sudbury. 

First, the primary mining companies were bought by foreign interests. They evolved from monoliths that did their own research and development, thinking they were the only people who could solve their problems, to cutting costs and outsourcing solutions and innovation.

So now if you work at a major mining company and see a problem that needs fixing, your first inclination might be to launch a business to find a solution knowing your current employer might actually buy it. That's not how we used to think. What facilitates this approach are two major developments, both stage-managed by the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) and its president, Don Duval. (Full disclosure: I helped hire him).

First: education. Then: infrastructure.

NORCAT started with a free lecture series (Entrepreneurship 101) on how to start a business, which touched hundreds of people over the years. After that came two major initiatives that drive this cultural change.

The first was the organization of a powerful group of mentors who have “been there, done that” and want you to succeed. They spend time with you, provide advice and, most importantly, offer directions to resources that you need to build your business. The intangible is the spirit that infuses the Sudbury experience. This is about enterprise but it is also about building community and work for your grandkids.

Finally, with the leadership of Peter Dal Bianco, a group of more than 80 local investors who have the capacity to make serious investments have been organized into the NORCAT Angel Investors Group. That means when you're ready, you will have an audience. It by no means guarantees an investment, but it gives you a chance.

There are about 75 companies in the NORCAT ecosystem. Seven of them have received about $4 million in private equity. Two of them have already gone broke. Those 75 will churn every year. There is nothing easy about creating wealth.

The key is a culture of hard work, brilliance and inspiration, which intersects with an investment climate that accepts there is almost always pain before success, and sometimes just pain.

Sudbury is now a player in the digital innovator economy.

ConceptShare embodied all those sentiments. Bernie, Scott and Dennis are an important part of the “been there, done that” infrastructure that is driving Sudbury's new economy.