Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Montreal, and Vancouver are all recognized tech clusters in Canada. But the story around a new hub in Sudbury, Ontario can be traced back to a round of golf between Kirk Petroski, the CEO of Symboticware, and Dick DeStefano, the Executive Director of SAMSSA (Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association), where Petroski urged DeStefano to speak to MaRS about mining innovation.
As some VCs and consultants have argued, building the next Silicon Valley means a community should not try to replicate the Valley, but that the community should work towards differentiation and being the best in a specific domain. By all accounts, Greater Sudbury, home to approximately 160,000 and a major producer of nickel, is on its way to becoming the Silicon Valley of underground mining technology.
While the formation of the cluster may be an anomaly, the growth trajectory and development direction are not. These two points became abundantly clear when DeStefano, a self-professed disciple of Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter’s theories, shared his vision of turning Sudbury into an underground mining ecosystem and his journey as one of the pioneers.
Builders, Leaders and Feeders
“In 2001, I took myself out of retirement, researched the Sudbury community, and looked at companies. I tracked them down and invited them to get together. Only six people showed up to first meeting,” DeStefano recounts the early days of his mission to focus Sudbury’s talent and energy in mining supply and technology.
Of those six people, two left early saying it would never work, but the rest said they were willing to help and the community grew from there. Eventually, SAMSSA was formed with a mission to provide the most innovative mining supply/products/services to the world. The impact has spilled over to neighbouring cities such as Timmins, North Bay, and the rest of Northern Ontario. Today SAMSSA has 130 corporate members.
The work of DeStefano and other leaders in the past decade illustrates Brad Feld’s recommendations on how to build a startup community. Sudbury’s support systems for mining innovation and entrepreneurship are strong:
- A total of 9 research institutes related to mining (e.g., CEMI, CAMIRO, MIRARCO);
- A total of 75 programs from colleges directly related to mining;
- The new school Goodman School of Mines at Laurentian University;
- NORCAT, led by former MaRS executive Don Duval, as part of the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), featuring the Underground Technology Testing, Training, and Innovation Centre (for validating mining technology) and entrepreneurial programs (for educating and grooming next-generation entrepreneurs);
- Both Glencore Xstrata and Vale, global mining companies
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