Vancouver Sun: Mitacs head has high hopes for innovation

Canadian businesses need to innovate to stay competitive, but this country is lagging its counterparts in research and development, according to the new head of Mitacs. Alejandro Adem, who has replaced now-University of B.C. president Arvind Gupta as CEO, told The Sun in a recent interview that his organization can boost Canadian innovation by pairing university students with businesses.

Q What do readers need to know about Mitacs?

A Our universities are training a lot of students, and industry has big needs for people involved in research and development. Mitacs creates a bridge and takes all this talent from the universities and deploys it in industry.

Q Why isn’t that bridge already in place?

A Unfortunately, Canada faces many challenges. There is underinvestment by companies in R&D and there really is a low production of graduates in strategic areas. There’s some disconnect between what’s happening in universities and what’s happening in industry.

Q How innovative is B.C. compared to other provinces?

A It is quite strong, I would say. The clusters around Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are the three leading areas. Alberta also has some strong universities.

Q How is Canada doing compared to other countries?

A There was a report called the Jenkins report and it showed that business innovation in Canada lags behind other highly developed countries, and that’s a concern.

Q Is the country a lost cause? Should we just focus on resource extraction?

A Not at all. Canada has some wonderful industries and high amounts of talent. I think Canada is well positioned to attract world-class students. I think Canada is competitive, but we’re demanding. We want to compete against places like Germany and the U.S. and France. That’s the kind of league we want to be in.

Q Why is innovation so important?

A Innovation is the ultimate source of long-term competitiveness of businesses and quality of life for Canadians. In everyday life, we benefit from it simply by using ATMs, medical devices, almost anything that we use and touch — it all came from ideas that were developed and commercialized. A society can only move forward if it invests in innovation.

Q Are there things that Canada could be doing better?

A There are countries like the U.S., where industries invest more, and Germany, where the government invests more. But Mitacs is the biggest organization of its kind in the world, so Canada is a leader in this kindof program.

Q Is there something in particular you hope to focus on at Mitacs?

A I want to make connections to industry a standard thing in graduate education. I want to build it into their education, not as a special opportunity, but as something that they should always be thinking about.

Q How many students has Mitacs worked with?

A We have supported more than 10,000 research internships over the past 15 years. We serve all of the universities in Canada.

Q You’ve studied at institutes around the world: Paris, Zurich, Bonn and others. How did you decide to settle here?

A I was very attracted by the conditions at UBC. I was offered a Canada research chair and a leadership role at the Pacific Institute of Math and Sciences, and last but not least, I came for the wonderful surroundings in Vancouver.

By: Matthew Robinson