Companies unleash power of mathematics to boost productivity and create jobs
The idea had its fair share of skeptics at the time, but also some influential champions within the NCE. In 1998, after reviewing a slate of about 80 applicants, the NCE selection committee decided that four would become Networks of Centres of Excellence, including the Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems or Mitacs.
Mitacs was created to overcome three main hurdles facing the academic community and the very people and sectors that could benefit most from advanced mathematical and statistical techniques, tools and methodologies.
- Making graduate students more employable by providing them with opportunities to work on real-world problems,
- Encouraging academics, many for the first time, to partner with industry, government and other disciplines to address problems where mathematics and statistics could provide solutions, and
- Demonstrating to Canadian companies how mathematical and statistical sciences can address critical business opportunities.
By 2011, when the NCE grant for the mathematical sciences was transferred to a new entity, Mprime Network, not only had it helped increase graduate enrolment in mathematics by 10% (compared to a 7% drop in the U.S.), but its collaborative model has resulted in more than half of those Masters and PhD graduates getting jobs with their partner firms.
Connecting with the private sector has been a priority for the network since day one. The original Mitacs had 54 academic scientists and 303 students working with 93 partners. By 2011, Mprime had 377 academic scientists from 32 different disciplines (52% from outside of mathematics and statistics) and 739 students working with over 650 partners in sectors as diverse as health, medicine, information technology, manufacturing, the environment, finance, communication and security. The majority of Mprime partners – some 80% – hail from industry, from small and mid-sized firms to large corporations. Collectively, they contributed $1.5 million annually to the network.
Mprime’s current priority is to find ways to sustain those linkages. The network reached the end of its 14-year term in 2012 and transitional funding from the NCE is helping it to line up new sponsors to continue networking and industrial outreach. At the request of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a high-level panel that included Mprime stakeholders produced a long-range plan that recommended several options, including having Mprime continue to function as the innovation arm of a new network for Canada’s existing mathematical and statistical sciences institutes.
“Mprime has proven that mathematics isn’t purely theoretical – it can be harnessed to address challenges that all companies face,” says Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub, Scientific Director of Mprime and one of Mitacs’ founders. “What we’ve accomplished through collaboration is nothing short of a revolution.”
Getting companies on board
The British Columbia-headquartered network challenged the notion of what a traditional NCE should be. It developed a new model for academic-industry research collaboration that saw companies of all types and sizes engaged in every stage of the organization. A who’s who of corporate Canada joined the network’s board of directors and advisory committees, providing advice and guidance on how to produce research that was relevant to companies and young graduates with the advanced research and business skills needed by prospective employers.
“Industry engagement has been our greatest accomplishment,” adds Dr. Arvind Gupta, who led Mitacs as its scientific director until 2011. “Companies haven’t always seen the relevance of mathematics to their operations. But look at a company like Maple Leaf and the issue of contaminated food. We were able to bring together both cell biologists and mathematicians to address that challenge.”
Ghoussoub agrees: “Mitacs/Mprime was proactive, not reactive. We were fast out of the gate in addressing SARS and H1N1, the 2008 financial crisis, and the emerging areas of nanotechnology and quantum computing.”
Network researchers helped another company, Shell Canada, develop a numerical model for the biodegradation of oil. In another project, they worked with Lockheed-Martin and VisionSmart to improve complicated systems used in search and rescue missions, air traffic management and surveillance. Mathematicians also worked with Ballard Power Systems to increase the energy efficiency of hybrid engines, and with McCain Foods to manage potato beetle infestations without the use of pesticides.
Putting interns to work
Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear presenting a Mitacs Awards in November 2012 to Mitacs-Accelerate intern Lisa-Marie Collimore, a post-doctoral fellow from the University of Toronto.
Mitacs found a novel way to get individual companies even more engaged, and willing to put hard cash into research and development. In 2004, it launched a pilot internship program that saw companies sharing the cost to have graduate students apply their expertise in mathematical and statistical sciences to industry-relevant problems.
“We took an academic community that had little connection to industry and fostered the largest industrial outreach of any NCE. The idea that industry should substantially contribute cash to the research effort was almost unheard of before we appeared on the scene. The fact that we did it in the mathematical sciences was a wake-up call to how things should be done. Now, it has become the standard by which NCEs are judged,” says Ghoussoub.
The success of that pilot spurred the NCE to create a new program – the Industrial Research and Development Internship – which in 2008 awarded Mitacs $8.6 million to broaden its reach across Canada and beyond mathematics.
“Many mathematical sciences graduate students were leaving the country to find jobs in their field,” says Gupta. “That’s one of the main reasons we started the network and the internship program. We needed programs that would help companies incorporate sophisticated mathematical tools and methodologies into their innovation efforts, while giving students an opportunity to beef up their resumes so they could get jobs here in Canada.”
The network’s successes on both the research and training fronts led to its decision in May 2011 to reorganize into two separation organizations: Mitacs Inc. now focuses exclusively on training and internships across all academic disciplines and industry sectors, while the Mprime NCE supports academic-industry research partnerships in mathematical and statistical sciences.
“It’s a hard thing to tell your board that we’re not going to take $5.4 million a year anymore (as the NCE funds were re-directed to Mprime),” says Gupta, who is now CEO and scientific director of Mitacs. “But we knew it was time for the internship program to branch out on its own. It’s on track to become one of the NCE’s greatest legacies.”
Today, Mitacs runs Canada’s largest internship program for young researchers. It integrates industrial challenges into graduate research programs, giving young researchers job-ready skills and providing companies with solutions that make them more productive and competitive.
That NCE-supported program– Mitacs-Accelerate – is now part of a suite of five research and training programs created and managed by Mitacs, the most recent being Globalink, an international initiative that connects the talents in Canadian academic institutions with those in India, Brazil, China and Mexico. The offerings have broad funding support: the federal government, nine provinces, 58 Canadian universities and hundreds of companies.
Mitacs-Accelerate has supported thousands of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows over the years, including 1,300 interns working with over 580 companies in 2011-12. In January 2013, Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear announced $35 million over five years in new funding for Mitacs, which will boost the number of internships close to 2,000 annually. In January, 2013, Mitacs reached an agreement with water technology company Trojan Technologies to co-fund 100, four-month internships over the next four years – the single largest yet for any company.
"The biggest value of Mitacs is to be able to get access to expertise quickly that is not available in the company," says Dr. Domenico Santoro, a senior research scientist and research team leader at Trojan. "It helps us build collaborations with universities in a way that's extremely effective. There's a huge appetite for this type of expertise and excitement about its potential to accelerate innovation.”
From the Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada website