Judy Sander: planting the entrepreneurial seed.

Author:Ontario, Northern

In many ways Judy Sander runs a small business dating service. The manager of the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre was pumped up about the arrival in January of a new crop of budding entrepreneurs enrolled in a new mentorship program.

Two of the centre's allies from the Thunder Bay business community were meeting with one of her clients to brainstorm for two hours around a product idea under development.

"I know they'll come up with some new way of approaching this that my entrepreneur hasn't thought of," said Sander "We'll bring him into the room and see what they come out with."

Those kinds of connections and learning experiences are invaluable for entrepreneurs and early stage companies to increase their chances of survival.

In her 14 years at the centre's helm, Sander and her staff of eight have assembled a healthy Rolodex of contacts from higher education, health sciences, software development, manufacturing and finance; some of whom serve on her board, are past clients or willingly act as small business mentors.

"We have these people in the community with a passion for innovation," said Sander "They'll volunteer their time, share their insight and act as a contractor for next to nothing, just to get things moving."

With close to 20 years in business development, Sander caught the bug while working at the city's Entrepreneur Centre in the early 1990s.

Born and raised in Atikokan and a graduate of Lakehead University's commerce program. Sander co-owned a Huntsville resort and worked as a small business consultant.

When she joined the centre in March 2000, six months after it initially opened. the organization was struggling financially and philosophically. The revenue streams for programming were limited and more attention was being paid to the trappings of shiny new offices than delivering top-notch client services.

"Early on it was more about the space than the client support," said Sander. "We've gotten away from having all our eggs in one basket with any one funder. We have numerous projects, we have private sector supporters, we're not hoping that innovation and entrepreneurship is on any one government's agenda. We have a diversified revenue stream and we continue to find new funding sources."

The Innovation Centre works out of a 4,000-square-foot building at Confederation College where they are commissioning an advanced manufacturing lab to assist small companies with prototype development.

"We're looking at doing new...

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