Vancouver Sun – For some, inventing is easier than selling their idea

Michael Gilbert is waging a war on bedbugs.

And he’s winning. The president and chief scientific officer of the British Columbia biotech start-up SemiosBio has figured out how to keep the pesky parasites at bay without resorting to toxic pesticides. SemiosBio uses pheromones, chemicals that insects secrete to communicate with each other – signalling an alarm, an attraction or communicating some other message – to keep bedbugs off luggage and other modes of transport that can spread bedbugs between even the swankiest of five-star hotels.

It’s a great idea and one that could have people lining up to buy as bedbug populations flourish, their numbers growing with the banning from indoor use of the toxic pesticides that killed them.

But while figuring out how to fight off bedbugs is a job for scientists, figuring out how to get from innovation to market calls for skills of a different sort. That’s where Mitacs’ Accelerate program is making a difference. 

Mitacs, a not-for-profit partnership of companies, government and academia, is a national research network that provides research and training programs to develop Canada’s next generation of innovators. Its Accelerate program matches up graduate and post-doctoral students with companies that need help tackling business research challenges.

“I’m a scientist, a chemist. I know a lot about how to design chemicals but I didn’t know a lot about marketing,” said Gilbert. Mitacs had just the person to help: Elizabeth Velasque, a MBA student from Simon Fraser University who was looking for real-world challenges in her studies.

The resulting match has been so successful that SemiosBio has extended Velasque’s four-month internship for another four months and she is supporting development of new products as well as continuing the marketing for the bedbug repellent. 

“I was looking to accelerate my career and I was looking to be involved in a project that combines science with business,” said Velasque. Velasque said through the internship she has been able to transfer skills acquired through her previous experience working in pharmaceuticals and combine that with what she is learning in her MBA program.

The Mitacs Accelerate internship program is expected to grow from last year’s 1,300 projects to more than 2,000 this year across Canada, with more than 400 in B.C.

“Our goal is to grow this to 10,000 projects,” said Mitacs’ chief executive Arvind Gupta. That would mean about 10 per cent of all graduate students in Canada would have an opportunity to participate in the program. Some 50 per cent of students end up going to work for the company they interned with, a trend that Gupta said is helping to stem the exodus of grads from Canada to find jobs with larger companies in the United States and other countries.

Stats show that the number of students who stay in Canada at least two years after completing their graduate degrees jumps by 25 per cent for those who are involved with Mitacs internships.

“You can’t force people to stay in the country but what you can do is create opportunities for them,” he said. 

For companies, Mitacs starts by working with them on identifying the challenges they face and then developing solutions. “My graduate students are excited that they are touching real-life problems and solving things and CEOs are saying, ‘you’re helping to make my company better.’ That’s the win. That’s the real partnership.”

The disciplines involved vary widely – sciences, social sciences, humanity – and Gupta said there is a push on to encourage more involvement from social sciences and humanities students. 

“Let’s think beyond the technical things you need and think about social dynamics, then you are looking at the human side of technology,” he said. “Really we should be thinking about how that technology impacts the world. If we get companies thinking that way, students thinking that way, we will really open up new opportunities.” 

For Molly Schneeberg, Mitacs has provided vital talent to take her company Kibooco Interactive from an idea to a point where it is soon going to market with a prototype of a software platform that lets kids create and design their own stories. The Kibooco stories will be published digitally and the software also makes it possible to turn them into printed books.

Schneeberg said in conceptualizing her project, the focus was mostly on content and less on tools, with the assumption there would already be existing tools to use to let the kids create their books. However, research showed that the available software was geared for adults; the only kids’ versions were simply ones overlaid on an adult version but not really geared for kids.

“A kids’ usability standard was what we wanted to build and we set that as our compass,” said Schneeberg. “What Mitacs did was they got us an intern who could focus on kids’ interaction with technology. His studies were in that area and it’s the total area of focus and research for his faculty supervisor. 

“Allan (Bevins, the Mitacs intern) became a pivotal part of our team.” 

Kibooco’s experience with Mitacs was so successful that the company hired its first Mitacs intern, Nathan Sorenson, after he graduated and is hoping Bevins will join the company after graduation as well. “I feel personally there is a lot of value to the program,” said Schneeberg. “They really matched us with an intern who brought exactly the type of research focus we needed.”

Dmitry Samosseiko at Sophos, a company that specializes in online and computer security, also  has praise for Mitacs.

“This is the first time my team has worked with an intern and I can definitely say it was a great success,” he said. “It all went very smoothly. We met with professors from UBC, we spoke to them about what we do, the challenges we face and the research opportunities and we agreed on one specific problem they thought their students would be well equipped to work with us on.”

With Mitacs sharing the cost of the intern’s salary, Samosseiko said it’s a cost-effective way for the company to invest in research.

“We offer something back to the academic community,” he said. “It provides an experience for students to join a corporate environment, to work on really hard problems.”

Asked if his company would continue to take on Mitacs’ interns, Samosseiko said: “Absolutely, we will if we get another opportunity.” 

Edition: Final_C

Length: 1058 w ords