Rocks, trees … medical research? Thunder Bay aims to reinvent itself – by Gordon Pitts (Globe and Mail – September 13, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

THUNDER BAY – Rory Carrillo grew up loving his native California for its heady brew of ideas and people, and the moderate weather that allowed him to train year-round as a triathlete. Yet three months ago, this son of Los Angeles washed up on the shores of Lake Superior – in the blue-collar Northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay.

“I wanted to go some place different,” said Mr. Carrillo, 28, and few places could be more different than Thunder Bay, a city with a ravaged forestry industry, a proud but underused port, and long cold winters.

Mr. Carrillo is the new face of Thunder Bay, as it strives to pull off a near-impossible task for a once resource-dominated economy – to reinvent itself as a place where brains rather than commodities are the building blocks.

He has what The Lakehead desperately wants – knowledge, specifically medical-technology knowledge. He has a masters in biomedical engineering, and five years experience with a big medical devices firm in San Francisco.

Thunder Bay, with 114,000 people, is still identified with rocks and trees – mining in particular is strong again – and it is still a key gateway to the Middle and West of Canada. But Mr. Carrillo’s employer – a medical-imaging startup called Tornado Medical Systems Inc. – is founded on a completely different kind of resource. It’s one that could help the old port city, long identified with its cluster of grain elevators, come to be known for a new kind of cluster – in research talent.

“We’ve got to survive as a community,” says Keith Jobbitt, a local lawyer who long ago observed the precarious nature of the city’s resource-based economy and concluded that minds, rather than mines, are the only sustainable advantage.

“The old combination of the paper mill, the mines and the port are not the economic drivers any more. It’s intellectual capital,” Mr. Jobbitt says.

Mr. Jobbitt’s tenacity drove the construction of an architecturally vibrant regional teaching hospital that opened in 2004 at a central location. At 70, Mr. Jobbitt is chairman of the region’s medical research institute, a public-private body, aligned to the hospital and Lakehead University, whose core mandates include developing cutting-edge imaging technology for detecting and diagnosing disease.

There is a remarkable consensus among residents in support of these initiatives, but Thunder Bay still needs to shake off outsiders’ stereotypes of an isolated mill town. It must be able to tap venture capital beyond local angels that have sustained the dream so far. It needs a continued flow of research grants to Lakehead and the research institute.

Thunder Bay has a 10- to 20-year window to make it happen, says Tornado’s president, Stefan Larson, a former McKinsey consultant who spends a lot of his time on planes commuting between his home in Toronto and Thunder Bay. “It needs one strong bellwether company.”

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