Mentorship is key to success of Fortin Discovery Lab
The Fortin Discovery Lab, which opened November 5, 2014, is the brainchild of Tom Fortin, founder of Ontrak Control Systems. Located in the NORCAT Innovation Mill in Sudbury, the goal of the centre is to develop entrepreneurial talent. Thanks to a FedNor contribution of $400,000, the lab features 3-D printers, as well as equipment for computer numerical controlled mold making, laser micromachining and electromagnetic compatibility certification. With its state-of-the-art tools, the Discovery Lab helps engineers and technologists transform concepts into certified products ready for export anywhere in the world.
Frustrated that so many products are being manufactured overseas, Fortin created the lab to help people acquire the skills needed to create a strong, innovative manufacturing sector here in Northern Ontario. In addition, by helping people design and produce their own products, it supports regional job and wealth creation.
“If we want to advance industry and create an innovative economy, we need to create competencies in software, electronics and sensors,” asserts Fortin. “The lab is designed to help entrepreneurs to overcome two barriers: the capital costs of equipment, as well as regulatory burdens.”
Set up with full electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) certification, the lab allows local companies to do their own testing. Fortin says the advantages are not just monetary.
“When you do your own testing, you learn about the vulnerabilities of your product,” states Fortin. “Consequently, company engineers can readily make modifications to their product, and in doing so, enhance their problem-solving skills.”
Since the lab eliminates the need for third-party safety and EMC testing that usually involves a waiting list, the process is much quicker. It also reduces the cost of entry into the marketplace for business, and expedites export and market expansion. That’s something to which Maestro Digital Mine can attest.
“Our development team does all the design work in-house and we use the Fortin Discovery Lab for testing,” explains Michael Gribbons, Co-founder and Vice President of Maestro Digital Mine. “We’re often in there daily. If we were to do in-housing testing ourselves, it would require a $200,000-$300,000 investment, which would not be feasible. Were it not for the lab, we’d be forced to move our company to southern Ontario.”
According to Gribbons, exports are 50 percent of Maestro Digital Mine’s total sales and are integral to its growth plan.
“Canadians are quite good at getting small companies off the ground but really poor at scaling them up,” says Gribbons. “Small innovative companies in Canada often never make it to the next stage; it’s foreign investors who swoop in and grow the companies. We’re learning how to do that ourselves here at the Discovery Lab.”
The Fortin Discovery Lab also helps those engineers or technologists, referred to as Independent Product Developers (IPDs), with an idea and a desire to start their own company. Through a resident agreement, qualified candidates may receive access to the facility to assist with the start-up phase of their business.
EMC certification is a key benefit of Fortin Discovery Lab
Michael Dolinar, Director of Technology Development for Synaptic Technologies, credits the lab with the successful launch of his software company, AdvanceWorx in 2015. A chance encounter with Tom Fortin convinced the computer scientist that entrepreneurship was a viable option, enabling him to contribute to Canada’s gross domestic product. With the support of Fortin (in particular, his mentorship and no nonsense advice), Dolinar made the leap. Dolinar has subsequently rolled AdvanceWorx into Synaptic Technologies.
“There were two big advantages with the lab,” shared Dolinar. “I was able to work with a million dollars’ worth of equipment and when clients came to call, I had this very impressive facility that inspired confidence and helped me to successfully pitch my product.”
The IPDs offer design services for individuals, corporations and research institutions on a fee-for-service basis while managing the responsibility of day-to-day operations for their particular section of the lab. The arrangement requires little overhead while developing advanced commercial products, a win-win for Northern Ontario entrepreneurs.
As of October 2019, 25 businesses and 15 entrepreneurs had taken advantage of the facilities offered at the lab to test their product prototypes and/or launch their businesses.
This project is an example of the type of initiative funded by FedNor that supports the federal Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario (PGSNO). Learn more about PGSNO.