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Awards celebrate northwestern Ontario innovation

Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre celebrates 13th annual innovation awards

THUNDER BAY — A flat-pack furniture company, agri-tech entrepreneurs looking to lower food costs in the North, and a youth-focused food security organization were among the winners of the 13th annual RBC Innovation Awards held in Thunder Bay on Nov. 3.

All of those winners leveraged ingenuity to make a real impact on the region, said Judy Sander, an awards co-host and senior business advisor with the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre.

The awards provide welcome recognition for a burgeoning, and increasingly diversified, entrepreneurial community in Thunder Bay, Sander said.

“We’re seeing more nominees, and I also think we’re seeing nominees around a diversity of sectors — you saw agriculture, health care, manufacturing — it’s really diversified.”

Matej Rodela, founder of flat-pack furniture startup Tok Tok Home, received the Innovative Business of the Year award for his company’s efforts.

“I didn’t expect to get the award, especially seeing the other nominees and their projects, so I’m really grateful and honoured,” he said Thursday.

Founded in 2020, Tok Tok has focused largely on living spaces, offering cleanly designed items like lounge chairs, coffee tables, stools, and shelving that buyers can easily assemble at home.

The company has recently grown its line of products with more in the works, and is eyeing an expansion into physical retail space.

Rodela said the success rests largely on the amount of knowledge, skill, and support he’s found in Thunder Bay.

“There’s great support,” he said. “The innovation centre [was] able to provide me with all of the information and support I needed. And then the town itself has so many skilled people, from carpenters to metal workers.”

Sander called Rodela a “visionary” who cares deeply about design as well as the environment.

AgriTech North, meanwhile, took home the Innovative Project of the Year award for its indoor vertical farming operations.

The Dryden-based container farming operation produces a variety of crops that are distributed via subscription boxes to clients along a network stretching from Winnipeg to Sioux Lookout.

The company’s social mission is to increase access to fresh produce in Indigenous communities in the Far North, and reduce costs by 25 per cent.

Erin Beagle, executive director of Roots to Harvest, won the Innovation Hero of the Year.

The award recognized her leadership role as the organization worked to become a community food centre with Community Food Centres Canada, which will significantly expand its footprint in the region.

Alessandra DeGrazia won the Young Innovator of the Year award. The x-ray tech 3D prints her own custom-designed x-ray markers locally under the name MRT Markers. She’s also started a second project, NuovaCard, upcycling plastic cards into reusable dry/wet eraser surfaces.

Finally, Eric Tribe took home the Marv Detweiler Advisor of the Year award for his efforts chairing the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre’s board of directors, and sharing his experiences as an entrepreneur with new clients.

— TBNewswatch