Is growing berries easier than growing businesses?
Someday Zach Douglas will be able to answer that question after he establishes his new Saskatoon berry hobby orchard in Prince Edward County next year.
The 66-year-old founding CEO of the McMaster Innovation Park — a 12-year-old effort to commercialize research and jump-start new companies — officially retired Tuesday.
Douglas came to Hamilton in 2006, after heading the Saskatchewan Opportunities Corp., a Crown corporation that, among other things, ran a couple of research parks in that province.
His task here was to lay the groundwork for transforming former Camco lands off Longwood Road into a vibrant research park that would foster and commercialize research at McMaster University.
The lands had been purchased by McMaster in 2005 for $13 million. The province kicked in $10 million and the city another $5 million to help the park get established.
The idea had a neat symmetry to it. MIP, as it came to be known, was an opportunity for Hamilton to step beyond its factory-based past and stake out new territory as a centre of research and development.
One personal goal, Douglas said, was for the park to employ as many people as Camco had in its closing months of operation.
That milestone has been achieved, with an estimated 800 people currently working at the park, about the same as were at the fridge and stove manufacturer when the company shut down in December 2004.
Most visible today are the refurbished or new buildings on the property — the Atrium building where Camco offices used to be, CanMet, the McMaster Automotive Research Centre and the soon-to-officially open BEAM-FraunhoferCentre for Biomedical Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing.
In addition, a consortium of Toronto-based developers recently announced plans for a $20-million, 134-unit hotel in the park.
New companies have formed including Apollonia Health, that makes oral hygiene products (that recently sold for $2 million U.S.); Nix Sensor, a technology that senses shades of colours so paints can be replicated, and NuGeneris Specialty Pharmaceuticals, which develops numerous drugs.
"I don't think it is bragging too much to say these last few years have seen a number of companies incubated here and starting to thrive and prosper. It's become more than just being a place for research. We truly have become a centre of innovation and commercialization," says Douglas.
Hamilton's Mayor Fred Eisenberger agrees. "It is coming to fruition very nicely ... In my view, it has happened quicker than I would have expected.
"It's a critical part of the continued diversification of our economy. The collaboration we see today between McMaster and Mohawk, Redeemer and Hamilton Health Sciences is really the foundation of the future success of the city of Hamilton. Zach has done a great job of moving it forward and fulfilling the vision," said Eisenberger.
Nick Markettos, McMaster's assistant vice-president of research, will fill in as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is found for Douglas, likely five to six months from now.
Glen Norton, the city's head of economic development, says he believes the park is entering a new phase in its development.
"Zach has been instrumental in getting McMaster Innovation Park up and running and positioned for its next growth spurt which we anticipate will come very soon," he said.
For his part, Douglas says, things got off to a bit of slow start because of cheap rent and large availability of office space in Hamilton. It kept lease prices low to a point that newly built facilities could not compete.
But in recent years the climate has changed, making new construction more viable.
Park officials hope that climate will continue, setting the stage for construction of the long awaited 100,000-square-foot Emerging Technologies Centre at the corner of Frid Street and Longwood Road.
Douglas says he will be watching developments at MIP closely from his lakefront hobby farm in Prince Edward County. He'll keep a house in Hamilton but plans to spend most of his time at the hobby farm.
"I'm going to try to do something that I feel was incomplete from my time living in Saskatchewan," he says.
Back in his days with the Saskatchewan Opportunities Corp., 15 years ago, he started a berry operation on the side using seedlings sold by one of the tenants of a research park he ran. But before he could manage his first harvest, he was off to Hamilton.
Now he wants to rekindle that dream and be one of a few Saskatoon berry orchards in Ontario. He says the berries are extremely tasty, slightly larger and plumper than blueberries.
"This is where the experimental nature of what I am doing comes in. The berries need winters to be very cold. In a different province and with global warming you really don't know what to expect."
But Douglas says he likes a challenge, whether it's growing businesses, or growing berries. And he realizes that — like research parks — berry orchards take several years to bear fruit.