Financial Post – Research organization successfully takes on role of R&D matchmaker

It’s a common issue—a business is faced with a nagging problem that requires research in order to solve, but doesn’t have the resources or the in-house knowledge to move forward. Enter Mitacs-Accelerate, a research internship program that makes it as easy as possible for businesses to connect with a graduate student who can work on the issue.  

“Maybe we have very good students and very bright students, but businesses just don’t get to meet them. So we said, ‘how about we send our students to you instead,’” Arvind Gupta, CEO of national non-profit research organization Mitacs, said.

Mitacs aims to support collaborative R&D by helping companies identify their innovation needs and by matching them with the academic expertise they require to grow.  It does so by partnering with companies, government and academia to offer research and training programs for Canada’s next generation of researchers.

One of the organization’s most popular programs is Mitacs-Accelerate, a research internship program. Through the program, companies are matched up with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who apply their skills to solve business research challenges.

“I think for me the real question is what parts of our academic system and our industrial system have not traditionally been hooked together. Because if we hook people up that traditionally never talk to each other, we have real potential of making an impact,” Mr. Gupta said.

“It was really magical, [companies] started meeting our students and all of a sudden they wanted to hire them. I remember one person told me that the students he was meeting were some of the smartest people he had ever met.”

Mr. Gupta says the program was inspired from conversations with business leaders who indicated that they did not know how to connect with graduate students.

“The idea is to find research-level problems in companies that graduate students can work on as part of their research,” Mr. Gupta said. “Mitacs tries to make it very easy for the company.”

The process begins when a company approaches Mitacs with a research problem.

“Mitacs has staff across the country that can go out to the company and try to understand the problem that they have … and talk about which universities may have that kind of expertise,” Mr. Gupta said.

Mitacs then goes about finding a student who can work with the company to advance its research. Standard internships under the program are four months long.

Companies provide $7,500 to Mitacs for the internship, and Mitacs matches the funding dollar-for-dollar. $10,000 of the resulting funding goes to the intern as a stipend, and the remaining $5,000 supports other costs associated with the research project.

Since the program’s first iteration in 2004, Mitacs has organized over 5,000 research internships across the country.

The newest version of Mitacs-Accelerate was launched in 2008 with an $8.6 million investment from the Industrial Research and Development Internship (IRDI) program, administered by the Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada. Mitacs-Accelerate has since gained financial support from three other federal departments and agencies, and seven provincial governments across the country.

Dr. Gupta says that many companies come to Mitacs-Accelerate to focus on optimization.

“Maybe five years ago companies were interested in out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “Now a few more companies are interested in how to save money in the shorter term, what processes they can change to become more efficient.”

One such company that approached Mitacs with an optimization issue is AV Nackawic Inc., a pulp mill in New Brunswick that produces innovative specialty pulp products to service the textile and paper industry.

AV Nackawic was struggling with an inefficient and outdated energy system, but lacked the resources to replace it.

“The project had been something I had been half working on, it was on my list of things to look at, but I knew it was a detailed project that was going to take quite a bit of time,” Carolyn Drost, Senior Process Engineer at AV Nackawic, said.

AV Nackawic heard about the Mitacs-Accelerate program through a local research chair at the University of New Brunswick, and quickly contacted Mitacs to learn more about the program. An intern was assigned to the project within a month.

“The intern recognized the inefficiency in the process, and helped us to overcome that,” Ms. Drost said.

By solving its inefficiency issue, the company realized savings of $40,000 a year. The intern was subsequently offered a long-term position with the company following the internship.

“The best part of this program is seeing the new people coming out of university and seeing their ideas and their growth, and getting excited about our industry,” Ms. Drost said. “There is unlimited value in [the Mitacs-Accelerate program].