Skip to content

Innovation centre jump-starts northwest business

For 11 years, the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre has been a source of motivation and support to many first-time entrepreneurs with big ideas.
The Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre has been a hot-house proving ground for a stable of local entrepreneurs and emerging technologies.

For 11 years, the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre has been a source of motivation and support to many first-time entrepreneurs with big ideas.

Over its 12-year history, it's developed an impressive resumé in helping clients develop new business.

A recently-released survey in tracking about 100 of its past and current clients revealed some amazing results from its alumni.

The small companies spawned by the centre brought 67 new products and services to market within the last year and created 48 full-time jobs and 22 internships. With an annual combined payroll of $7.3 million, almost 60 per cent optimistically responded that they expect to hire in the next year.

What's even more eye-popping is that clients have been able to leverage $13.7 million in public financing and private investment.

“That kind of shocked me,” said Innovation Centre manager Judy Sander.

Sixty-nine prototypes have been developed and nine patents have been issued out of 34 applications.

“The innovation funnel continues to be filled in the northwest.”

It's pretty impressive for an organization that runs lean with six staff and an operating budget of $500,000.

The Innovation Centre provides assistance for fledgling entrepreneurs in business planning, marketing, writing research grant applications and make connections to experts in manufacturing, engineering and patent law.

Surviving on a mixture of provincial, municipality and sponsorship

dollars, they're part of the Northern Technology Alliance that includes applied technlogy centres in Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and North Bay.

Sander said after the devastation in the area forestry industry it's important to celebrate and recognize the value that these small companies provide to the overall health of the northwest's economy.

“I think because they don't pop up and create 50 jobs, but one and two, they go largely unnoticed.

"Most of them don't sell anything locally, they're very export-oriented, so that makes them even more unnoticed.”

She remembers one early start-up, Varuna Software, a small digital and data broadcast company, that grew to 25 employes and eventually partnered with a Silicon Valley outfit to form SkyStreams Networks. A multi-national bought them out and relocated the company to Atlanta.

“But only one employee went and now we're working with three of them in various IT companies – two are CEOs – that have now spun off to create something else,” said Sander. “One good venture sometimes leads to another.”

“It really tells the tale that it's all about the talent.”

The organization's momentum continues to roll.

Last May, the Innovation Centre moved out of its cramped quarters at Lakehead University over to the former Hillcrest High School, now dubbed the Thunder Bay Centre of Change, a business incubator in the city's north end.

There, it occupies a 5,000-square-foot space inside the 142,000-square-foot stately edifice atop High Avenue overlooking the harbour.

Refurbished and stocked with tenants, it's the place to be to connect with small business start-ups.

“A number of our clients are already here so we get the benefit of not only having larger space for our own offices, but being in close proximity to them.”

A classroom was renovated to create a new development space called the Venture Vault with six workstations with phone and internet connections.

One tenant – a software developer – is currently in place, but more are on the way through a partnership with Confederation College.

Sander finds many ventures have a higher degree of success if they don't work in isolation but are surrounded with the proper support.

“One of the things we've discovered over the years is sometimes working in your basement, it takes a long time to get what you want to build and you sometimes miss your market opportunity.”

Sander said more programming is on the way.

The centre is launching “innovation cafes” at the college and university, an angel investment forum is in the works, and a “huge opportunity” is on the horizon through a promising partnership with Confederation in advanced manufacturing.

“There are a number of things in the hopper coming up that are pretty exciting.”


More Thunder Bay