Local Economy

Hamilton has a 'phenomenal opportunity': Chamberlain

Mark Chamberlain took a chance coming to Hamilton — and now one of the city's most famous innovators wants the community to take a chance, too.
Mark Chamberlain works away in his office in McMaster Innovation Park. (Jessica Young/CBC)

Mark Chamberlain took a chance coming to Hamilton — and now one of the city’s most famous innovators wants the community to take a chance, too.

"We have such phenomenal opportunity," Chamberlain said. "We have natural resources, we have a harbour, we have a train, we have great road links."

But now Chamberlain says the leadership is needed to "pull this all together" and bring Hamilton to the next level.

The Toronto-born Chamberlain attended the University of Waterloo, located in the heartland of one of Canada’s most innovative communities.

Before moving to the Hamilton area in 1985, the most exposure Chamberlain had to the city was during periodic visits to see his sister-in-law, then a Mohawk College student. A highly ambitious and potentially risky move brought him to the city.

"I knew very little about the city. I knew a lot about the company that I wanted to buy," Chamberlain said. "The opportunity posed itself here."

Low support for innovators at first

The founder and CEO of Istec, a camera technology company created by former Westinghouse Canada engineer Noxon Leavitt, was nearing retirement.

Though Chamberlain, in his late 20s at the time, had no experience heading up a major company, he stepped into Istec with the intention of taking over. He spent the next two years with Leavitt, learning how to be a CEO.

In 1987, he bought out Istec, eventually changing the name to WesCam in 1994 and turning the Hamilton company into a multimillion dollar corporation.

Chamberlain was just what the city needed. His colleagues and friends describe him as an innovator, a leader, a bridgebuilder, a downright nice guy.

Flattering qualities aside, Chamberlain brought much more with him to Hamilton. He gave a necessary boost to the city formerly pegged as "the ambitious city."

Chamberlain, now president and CEO of technology commercializing firm Trivaris, can be credited as catalyst for revitalizing Hamilton’s innovative past in a new way — he brought technology entrepreneurship to the city. But it wasn’t easy.

"What I learned early on is that the support for innovators, especially technology company innovators, was pretty much completely absent in the Hamilton context," said Chamberlain.

"Not surprising because of the business here in Hamilton was based on large manufacturers, the traditional manufacturing, the traditional base of prosperity here in Hamilton, most of which are gone today," he said.

To paint a picture of what Hamilton was like when Chamberlain arrived, David Adames, president and CEO of Hamilton’s Chamber of Commerce said it was a time of "the good, the bad and the ugly."

The recession of 1981 prompted a strike at Stelco. Shortly after, the mountain opened up and retail moved there, gutting the downtown core. During the 1991-92 recession, manufacturing started to contract.

"That was the ugly period," said Adames. "But leaders took notice and said, 'We need to diversify business.'"

Decide to be innovative or not: Chamberlain

Now Hamilton has the ingredients to rebuild its innovative past, said Adames. But Chamberlain believes the city still has a way to go.

He’s concerned about how the city innovates and operates since the city is such a key part of what he calls his ecosystem.

The city needs to attract people to live here in order for businesses to grow, he said.

"When you think of the city of Hamilton, the amount of time and effort and angst we went through to change a couple of one-way streets to two-way streets, that’s an indication that we’re not being very innovative," Chamberlain said.

How do we get innovative? By opening up information and putting it in the hands of the public, he said. But innovation begins somewhere else.

"It always, always, always starts with leadership," said Chamberlain. "The political leaders of this city have to decide if this is going to be an innovative city or not."

Chamberlain is a staunch advocate for leadership and it shows in the advice he passes to those he mentors.

Keanin Loomis, chief advocate of Innovation Factory, still recalls words of wisdom Chamberlain imparted during one meeting.

"He said, ‘We can have all kinds of engineers but the greatest deficit in all our organization is leadership.’ And that’s so true," said Loomis.

Chamberlain has filled these shoes not only in his professional community, but also in Hamilton’s community at large.

"In his volunteer work and community interest, he’s been an agent of change," said Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation.

"In the community foundation that I lead, he was absolutely critical seven or eight years ago before I got there in steering the organization’s focus on strengthening neighbourhoods and working on concentrated poverty," Cooke added.

Others taking risks

Chamberlain continues to volunteer with local community organizations like Job Prosperity Collaborative and the Poverty Roundtable in his spare time.

"He’s not a guy who just wants to build companies … He’s multi-faceted and I think that too contributes to his success because businesses are multi-faceted and in a leadership capacity, you have to do a lot of things well," said Cooke.

Today, 27 companies operate out of McMaster University’s Innovation Park, where Trivaris is also housed, and 17 Hamilton’s Technology Centre in Flamborough, not to mention the numerous creative companies popping up in Hamilton’s downtown core.

Chamberlain said it is these innovators who are taking the plunge and changing Hamilton for the better.

"There are a lot of phenomenal innovators…the ones that said we’re going to take a risk on this here in spite of everybody else, in spite of people like myself," said Chamberlain.

But Hamilton can’t forget the imprint Chamberlain has made, in innovation and elsewhere.

"He provides so much leadership in so many spheres," said Loomis. "We’re indebted to him."

This is the third article in a four-part series on innovation in the city of Hamilton.