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The Drift: NORCAT Underground Centre opens its doors to the world

Sudbury's 'clubhouse' tech centre drawing interest from global mining's leading innovators

If you're a tech company operating in the mining service and supply industry and you're hopeful of snagging some space at the newly expanded NORCAT Underground Centre, well, you're out of luck.

All available offices at the $4.5-million, 12,000-square-foot surface facility, located in Onaping north of Sudbury, were filled long before the site put out the welcoming mat in early January.

“We have 10 offices, and all 10 offices were leased even before we opened,” said Don Duval, NORCAT's CEO.

“We have validated our hypothesis that there is extreme value sought by a fairly large community, and now we're in a position where demand continues to grow.”

Central to that burgeoning enthusiasm is not what's above ground, but what's below it.

NORCAT's Underground Centre has been built around the former Fecunis Adit Mine, a working underground operation that was formerly owned by Falconbridge (now Glencore).

There, clients can develop new technologies, demonstrate their capabilities, and sort out any bugs before heading toward commercialization.

Workers can also attain hands-on experience through one of NORCAT's popular training courses, among them the common core programs that prep underground miners, diamond driller assistants, and surface miners for work in the industry.

Sought by mining sector players around the world, that expertise has necessitated a number of expansions in recent years.

In addition to the Underground Centre in Onaping, NORCAT hosts sites in Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins, the GTA, and Santiago, Chile.

Soon, the organization will branch out to a seventh location. In May, NORCAT was one of 10 mining supply and service companies from Northern Ontario selected to set up a storefront in Elko, Nevada.

Led by MineConnect, the pilot project will enable selected participants to test the waters of Nevada's massive mining industry. If it's a success, there could be an opportunity for more northern companies to expand into the market.

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Back at NORCAT's Underground Centre, Duval estimates the mine hosts, on average, 40 technology projects over the course of a year, while 50 global mining delegations make the pilgrimage annually.

That high level of interest drove the decision to create an enhanced space where business could be conducted outside the mine.

"If you think of the spirit of this being a vibrant hub for all that is tech and mining, you need to have activity on the build side and you need to have activity on the buy side, and we're achieving that,” Duval said.

“There's no other facility like us in the world that is rooted in having an underground operating mine that's used for not only skilled labour training and development – hands-on experiential training – but it's also used as this unique, active laboratory where you can support that engagement.”

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When the expansion was announced in spring of 2019, the response from government funding agencies was swift, and generous.

Of the cost, FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund covered $3.5 million. Duval said the remaining $1 million was contributed by NORCAT and key industry partners.

By June of that same year, Sudbury design firm Luciw Boudreau Architecture had been entrusted with bringing the NORCAT vision to life.

The building must be functional and purpose-driven, the firm was instructed, while embodying the themes of innovation, industry, and Northern Ontario.

Prosperi Construction was tasked with general contracting duties, while Reasbeck Construction acted on NORCAT's behalf as construction manager.

From design to completion, the process took 18 months, with a pause mid-build as COVID brought activity to a temporary halt.

The result, Duval said, is a structure that exudes a sense of "creativity, innovation, and forward-thinking...coupled with the feeling that this is an industrial type of environment.”

That includes exposed brick and ventilation work, touches of natural wood, and minimalist furniture.

To retain consistency in branding, the interior design replicates the neutral colour scheme – punctuated with fiery orange accents – that's in place at NORCAT's other sites.

Duval's favourite feature is the atrium, whose large windows look out onto the surrounding forest and let in lots of natural light.

If you were to be dropped into the space without context, and had to speculate about your location, “you would most likely guess somewhere in a northern community in Canada,” Duval said.

“It's a fairly meaningful, open space.”

In addition to the 10 offices set aside for tech companies, five various sized collaboration rooms are available for business partners to conduct meetings.

There are also drys (changerooms) for men and women, a dedicated storage room to hold personal protective equipment (PPE), and common areas where Duval envisions tradeshows and other events will take place.

“Ultimately, our aspirational goal of the facility aligns to our mandate of being this global, one-stop shop for all that is the future of mining, so it resonates that theme,” he said.

“But we also want to create this vibrant ecosystem, this vibrant clubhouse where like-minded individuals can convene to get business done, whatever that business might be.”

Among the companies that have found a home here are SK Godelius, a Chilean company specializing in teleremote technologies, and Exyn Technologies, a Pennsylvania-headquartered company whose drones can survey underground drifts and stopes autonomously.

That mix of local and international companies, sized big and small, is a unique mix that's ideally suited for this type of environment.

“In the spirit of creating a vibrant ecosystem, you want diversity amongst the players in the ecosystem and we're seeing it,” Duval said.

Though there may not currently be any offices available for rent, there is an alternative for tech firms that are still clamouring to get in to the underground centre.

NORCAT has established a membership-based 'clubhouse' model that opens up some of its common spaces for use as co-working offices.

The arrangement forgoes the need for a permanent location while providing participants with access to all the facility's amenities and support services.

It's a singular opportunity to be part of Sudbury's coolest new clubhouse.

“We already have a handful of members, and we're signing up members at a faster rate than we had anticipated, which is a great thing,” Duval said.

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.