Mitacs ramps up investment in AI training and helping Canadian businesses adopt AI

Original article by Mark Lowey in Research Money, translated by Mitacs

Mitacs has significantly increased its investment over the last five years to support businesses in adopting artificial intelligence and provide AI training for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

In recognition that AI has the potential to transform how businesses are operated, nearly one-quarter of Mitacs’ annual investment is now focused on AI training and adoption.

“It is a top priority right now,” Sylvain Giguère, vice-president, business development at Mitacs, told Research Money.

“AI has the power to make or break a country.”

Mitacs is a federally supported nonprofit national research organization that, in partnerships with Canadian academia, private industry and government, operates research and training programs across Canada.

Since April 2019 (from fiscal year 2019-2020 to FY 2023-2024), Mitacs has invested $200 million in AI-related projects, supporting 1,500 companies and other partners, Giguère said.

Sixty-four per cent of the AI projects were led by small and medium-sized businesses. The projects span all sectors, including cleantech, biotech, agri-tech, advanced manufacturing and others.

Mitacs has connected those 1,500 companies and other partners with more than 1,700 faculty members at 117 universities and research institutes across Canada.

In 2023, Mitacs invested $75 million to support 500 companies in AI-related projects, Giguère noted. “That’s about 24 per cent of our total investment last year.”

The number of Mitacs-supported student internships – mainly for grad students and postdocs – focused specifically on AI rose to 5,400 in 2023, compared with just 500 in 2019.

Giguère said Mitacs has established partnerships with Canada’s three national AI hubs – Mila – Quebec AI Institute, the Vector Institute at the University of Toronto, and Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) in Edmonton.

Mitacs also has a partnership with CIFAR which has a Canada CIFAR AI Chairs program that’s the cornerstone of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy.

Canada has 10 per cent of the world’s top-tier AI researchers, the second-most in the world.

“Mitacs connects researchers with companies and so stimulates corporate R&D,” Giguère said.

In a partnership with U.K.-headquartered Unilever, Mitacs provided the multinational consumer goods company with access to 90 highly qualified personnel, which helped Unilever open its first global AI lab, the Horizon3 Labs in Toronto, last November.

Unilever currently has more than 400 applications of AI across disciplines including marketing, supply chain, and research and development.

For example, Unilever has 50,000 ice cream freezers around the world that are AI-enabled to efficiently place the right product in the right freezer at the right time. The company also developed a bespoke AI solution that auto-updates product titles and descriptions on retail websites to respond to search trend to put relevant products in front of customers.

Earlier this month, Unilever’s Horizon3 Labs and Mitacs announced a new initiative to build the AI talent pipeline. Both organizations are investing a combined total of up to $8 million to fund 100 researchers at various stages in their academic careers to deliver AI technology-driven solutions.

Mitacs also provided Swedish telecom equipment giant Ericsson with access to 90 highly qualified personnel to help establish the company’s Global Artificial Intelligence Accelerator innovation hub in Montreal. It is Ericsson’s fourth global AI innovation hub including ones in the U.S., Sweden and India.

In May, Mitacs also partnered with IVADO, a Quebec-based consortium dedicated to research, training and knowledge mobilization in AI, to establish a strategic partnership between Montreal-based pharmaceutical firm Sorintellis, Polytechnique Montréal, and Université de Montréal.

The collaboration combines AI expertise with in-depth knowledge of pharmaceutical needs to accelerate drug development while ensuring effectiveness and safety and maximizing the value of investments in new drug development.

“A lot of the AI being developed is actually to better meet the needs of businesses and solve real-world problems,” Giguère noted.

Mitacs is working or has worked with Canadian companies such as Element AI, Layer 6 AI, Borealis AI, Xanadu, Bench AI, Deep Genomics, and BlueDot.

Mitacs’ student internships help provide post-secondary students, supervised by their academic advisors, with on-the-job training with companies working to solve real problems, Giguère said.

“It’s work-integrated learning, on top of the R&D that is done,” he added. “It helps to make them [the students] innovators in turn.”

Use of AI by Canadian businesses remains low

Federal Budget 2024 committed $2.4 billion to build and provide access to computing capabilities and technological infrastructure for Canada’s world-leading AI researchers, startups and scale-ups.

The federal government also invested $100 million in the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, to help SMEs scale up and increase productivity by building and deploying new AI solutions.

Currently, only 6.1 per cent of all Canadian businesses have made use of AI in producing goods and delivering services over the last 12 months, according to a report by Statistics Canada.

AI uptake varies by industry. The industries in which businesses were most likely to have used AI in producing goods or delivering services were information and cultural industries (20.9 per cent); professional, scientific and technical services (13.7 per cent); and finance and insurance (10.9 per cent).

Conversely, businesses least likely to be using AI for this purpose were in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (0.7 per cent); accommodation and food services (0.9 per cent); and mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (1.6 per cent).

Based on the StatsCan figures, AI adoption by Canadian businesses appears to be gradually picking up.

As of the end of 2021, only 3.7 per cent of Canadian firms with five or more employees had deployed AI in their business in any capacity, according to a study by the Dais, a public policy and leadership think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Mitacs is working to improve those numbers. On the ground across Canada, the organization has a network of business development specialists who visit companies and make connections for them with universities.

Mitacs has started unrolling a new AI-driven platform with an algorithm that scans all academics across the country to identify which are the optimal research teams that can help a particular company solve a specific problem.

The new tool appeals to companies that are sometimes reluctant to participate in a government program, because the AI-driven solution is much more tangible, Giguère noted. “We do an innovation roadmap for companies.”

A Mitacs program called Business Strategy Internship provides companies with knowledgeable post-secondary student interns that can help firms – especially smaller companies with limited resources – with business management components such as a strategy plan, R&D plan, a human resources component, and help with software adoption.

Giguère pointed out that 90 per cent of employees in Canada work for SMEs, as opposed to just 48 per cent in the U.S. working for SMEs.

The percentage of business managers in Canada with at least a BA degree is 38 per cent, compared with 56 per cent in the U.S.

Bright interns coupled with AI “can help company owners to make sense of these digital tools and use them more efficiently,” Giguère said.

Canada is struggling with a decline in productivity. Some of the main factors underlying this decline include Canadian businesses spending less on R&D than those in other countries – half as much as in the U.S. or Germany.

Canadian companies also invest less in machinery and equipment than their counterparts in other countries.

“AI is such an important field if we want to help Canada catch up on productivity and help companies focus their investments to become more productive,” Giguère said.

AI can help increase productivity by optimizing production processes and boosting the profits of knowledge companies, he said. “AI has the potential to help SMEs and some of the companies to leapfrog some of the steps that would have been done before and provided difficult to do.”

Beyond its investment in AI, Mitacs is helping Canada in other ways to improve on its poor productivity performance.

Over the years, Mitacs has invested a total of $1.3 billion into R&D, supporting nearly 11,000 SMEs with access to top talent and new technologies. This includes 37,000 projects, in a network of more than 14,000 academics and over 18,000 industry, non-profits, hospital, municipalities and other partners.

Data collected in an independent study by Statistics Canada over a three-year period showed companies participating in Mitacs’ programs increased their R&D spending by 60 per cent and their productivity by 11 per cent, Giguère noted.

The StatsCan study also showed, for Mitacs-supported companies and student interns:

  • 11 per cent increase in labour productivity
  • 9 per cent increase in employment
  • 9 per cent increase in revenue
  • 16 per cent increase in sales
  • 51 per cent of projects funded are commercializing
  • 21 per cent of program interns go on to be hired
  • 47 per cent of projects address a societal problem
  • 17 per cent of businesses adopted a new technology as a result of their Mitacs partnership.

Along with AI, quantum is another paradigm-shifting platform technology expected to transform how businesses operate and scientific research is conducted. Mitacs is definitely paying attention.

“This year we’re spending $6 million on quantum projects across Canada connecting researchers with companies to develop more startups,” Giguère said.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to empower Canadian innovation. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

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