When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in mid-March, most of the revenue-generating activity at NORCAT essentially ground to a halt, noted CEO Don Duval.
In particular, enrolment all but vanished for its flagship hard rock miner common core program.
The Sudbury innovation centre's resulting 85 per cent decline in sales made it difficult to continue providing the support and resources that small and medium-sized enterprises had come to rely on to grow and expand their businesses.
“For the most part, early-stage tech companies do not pay us for the service we provide,” Duval explained during an Oct. 14 virtual call. “They're small startup companies; they don't have the financial means."
Like so many other businesses, NORCAT applied for, and received, funding through FedNor to help see it through the hard times.
During an Oct. 14 virtual announcement, the federal funding agency announced $519,000 for NORCAT – through its Regional Relief and Recovery Fund and Regional Growth and Innovation Fund – to go toward two projects.
Of the funding, $429,000 has been earmarked for the construction of NORCAT’s new surface facility at its underground testing centre north of Sudbury.
With construction currently underway, Duval described the $4-million facility as a “destination that really represents Canada's eminence in all that is mining tech.”
The 12,000-square-foot building will include new offices for technology companies, demonstration space, and meeting rooms.
The idea is that, after watching a demonstration at the underground test facility, company and mining execs can move to the surface facility where they can discuss business.
FedNor previously provided $1.4 million for the construction of the facility.
NORCAT will use the remaining $90,000 to set up a technology hub to support companies developing software, gaming and apps.
Duval said there had been an increased interest in software development even prior to the onset of the pandemic, and it continues to grow.
“By providing a physical place and a studio and resources to help these software tech entrepreneurs either build and get started, or build their businesses, we're very proud that we can continue to deliver on that regional inno centre mandate,” he said.
Since those early days of the pandemic, things have started to turn around for the innovation centre.
All of its offices have reopened and staff have been recalled, Duval noted, and NORACT has been approached by more entrepreneurs seeking their services over the last six months than at any other time in the centre’s history.
“This is an innate flexibility, a desire to innovate, a desire to take constraints associated with the pandemic and reinvent their businesses,” he said.
Wednesday’s announcement was made by Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre and FedNor’s director general, Aime Dimatteo.