Lambton County extends from the shores of Lake Huron in the north to the Lake St. Clair in the south, a smaller body of water that feeds the Detroit River running between Detroit and Windsor, one of ICF’s Top7 Intelligent Communities. Largely rural and thinly populated, it was the site of North America’s first commercially drilled oil well in 1858. Petrochemical and refining industries are still its largest manufacturing and employment sector. The other mainstays of the economy are tourism-related commerce and agriculture.
This county of 129,000 is seeking to remake its future as an innovation economy. It is a member of the SWIFT project, a partnership of municipalities, counties and institutions in southwestern Ontario to build a fiber-optic regional broadband network across the region. It aims to achieve 50% fiber coverage of the region through a network of points of presence (POPs) at municipal offices, healthcare facilities, libraries and schools by 2020. One of those institutions is Lambton College, whose IT department has established The Cube, which offers tech advice and services to start-up companies and helped launch 12 new businesses within a year of opening its doors.
Provincial funding has helped launch a more ambitious effort called Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC). It is an accelerator designed to help bridge the gap between research and the market in chemicals and energy production from biomass. Located at the Western Innovation Research Park in Sarnia, BIC has provided support and investment to twelve startups, five of them in the county, and has established a pilot plant to process waste wood products into ethanol. One of its portfolio companies, BioAmber, has built the first commercial-scale plant to produce bio-based succinic acid, used in the food and beverage industry, from corn.
Through the Phoenix Project, Lambton College students refurbish computers donated by companies, citizens and the college IT department, and donate them to charitable organizations, churches and individuals. Since 2007, the Project has put more than 500 PCs into the hands of those who need them. For families stuck in poverty, the community has created the Lambton Circles program, which pairs families working to get out of poverty with middle-class people who are willing to help them. Building intentional relationships across class and race lines, the Circles campaign changes the social system to support economic change for families.
Lambton County is innovating with the resources it has and the support of provincial government. Its future depends on its ability to spread the entrepreneurial spirit across the county and into the lives of all its citizens.