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Hamilton Economic Development

Activation Lab’s technological edge leading to global growth

Twenty-five years ago Eric Hoffman launched his one-man business to developActivation Labs president Dr. Eric Hoffman watches a robotic machine analyze iron ore samples. The company is growing and will soon start construction on a 200,000-square-foot building. mining exploration technologies in a small enterprise centre in Brantford.

It was, at first, a lonely venture. He had a family to support but he also had the vision to capitalize on technologies the economic geochemist knew were being developed by Canadian academics like him. It was just a matter of seeing the vision through.

He moved to Ancaster a few years later to be near McMaster University’s nuclear reactor — the only reactor in Canada that could be used commercially for the kind of mineral testing he had developed.

“We needed an edge over our competition and that was technology … that research that had not been applied commercially.”

It’s a formula that’s worked.

By the end of this year, Hoffman expects Activation Lab’s workforce will number about 1,500 people in 40 locations around the world. A new one in Burkina Faso just opened in March.

He expects about 100 new jobs will be added to the workforce of 350 at the corporate headquarters in Ancaster, from general labourers to staff with Ph.D or master’s degrees. Included among staff are his three children who were in school when he started, and his wife, who runs the human resources department.

Activation Labs has now also developed new branches, using high-tech methods and equipment in other industrial sectors such as life sciences, materials, environmental and agricultural.

In February, the company received $900,000 from provincial and federal development funds to further research into DNA-analysis soil tests which promise to determine if the conditions exist for a soybean cysnematode infestation — a common and debilitating problem common to the cash crop.

The company is now building a 200,000-square-foot lab in the Ancaster Industrial Park where Activation already has five buildings. This new one will house a mineral testing facility. One of the current buildings will house new agricultural and environmental labs.

But this is just one aspect of the incredible growth at Activation.

Hoffman said as minerals are discovered and mined, the need to use technology to discover deposits that are not easy to detect becomes more urgent, particularly for rare earth minerals, or harder to detect elements such as graphite. Then there is always the rush for gold.

Activation has created testing systems using a myriad of largely proprietary technologies to find mineral deposits by analyzing soil, rock, or even the bark of a tree or the bacteria in soil.

“We have developed a lot of technologies which can do that in a very cost effective way,” he said. “A lot of our technologies are unique.”

Activation has been actively growing domestically — moving its Thunder Bay facility into a larger building, for example, and this year opening a new western Canadian regional office in Kamloops, B.C.

By 1995 Activation had gone global, with a purchase of a company in the United States then eventually new labs in Australia and South America. Activation will open four locations in African countries this year and is currently building two in Mongolia.

Hoffman said even four years ago he never would have considered opening a business in Africa, but times, and the need for minerals, have changed.

“People have a fear of going outside Canada. We don’t see that there are a lot of companies going global,” he said. “Africa has been a continent that has been overlooked because of instability. There are areas that are still unable to be developed but there are areas that are ripe for development. It was a pretty well-kept secret. ”

He has also taken a different tack by hiring locals to manage foreign locations rather than expats.

“We find that employees prefer to work for someone from their home country. Many multinationals don’t do this.”

Hoffman said while there are difficulties with doing business in foreign areas such as Africa such as shipping delays and hiring staff, there are just as many doing business at home.

The reality is, however, Hoffman said he hasn’t hesitated because the demand for his business won’t allow it.

“We’ll never be a multinational billion-dollar company but we are likely fifth in the world in our industry,” he said. “We are good at developing technology and at seeing the potential advantage to commercializing applications (of academic research). I would say actually we’re very good at that.”

This article is for personal use only courtesy of TheSpec.com – a division of Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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