Mitacs CEO, John Hepburn, explains how the not-for-profit pairs companies with Canadian universities to drive innovation.
The following is an edited version of a Design Engineering podcast interview with Mitacs CEO, John Hepburn. For the past 20 years, the Canadian government-funded, not-for-profit has paired private companies with research specialists at Canadian universities to perform R&D projects and drive innovation.
What is Mitacs an acronym for?
Hepburn: It’s not an acronym anymore but commonly people still think it’s an acronym. Originally, it stood for mathematics, information technology and complex systems. It started as a network of academic researchers, applied mathematicians and computer scientists studying standard academic problems.
Nearly two decades ago, however, Mitacs got into the business of promoting industrial connections and providing research internships for graduate students. So, we stopped being the academic network and transferred into being a not-for-profit dedicated to basically creating university/industry partnerships and driving those through student internships.
When you say student, do you mean just graduate students, or undergrads and professors as well?
Hepburn: It’s all of the above. Mitacs started with an idea: Wouldn’t it be great if high level academic talent, in other words PhD students, were made available to solve industry problems. And so that also involves then the research professor, because the idea of our internships is the student doesn’t leave the university. I spent 18 years at University of Waterloo, so I know cooperative education programs inside and out. For those, the student leaves the university and goes and works in industry. And those are great – good for the student, good for industry.
Our programs are a little different in that the student, by contract with the federal government, never leaves the university. And so the work becomes incorporated into their research program as a graduate student. That’s the classic Mitacs. The vast majority of what we do is Master’s, PhD and postdoctoral students working on these shared cooperative research projects, with their supervising professor with an industry partner.
More recently, we’ve gotten into including professional students, in other words, business, community college, polytechnic and, very recently, undergraduate students. So we can work with students of any flavor or level, although most of the work is with more advanced students.
We’re open as long as it’s a partnership that promotes innovation in the non-academic partner and most of the work is with industry. But we also work with not-for-profits and municipalities. Mitacs basic idea is: How can we better exploit the talent and expertise that resides in our post-secondary institutions to solve problems outside of the academy.
So the allure for the industry partner is they gain access to technologies or talents they wouldn’t necessarily have in house?
Hepburn: The big allure is talent recruitment and talent retention. As with a cooperative education program, industry gets to work with a very talented student who they can then employ once they graduate. So that’s benefit number one. Benefit number two, which is the principal benefit during the internship, is the students are working on a real problem. Industry has something they can’t figure out or something they need help figuring out. And the student provides a conduit to the post-secondary expertise and also the equipment that’s available.
Our requirement is that the student has to spend roughly half their time at the University and half their time at the industry partner doing their internships. So they don’t transfer entirely to the industry partner and they don’t do contract research at the university. They do both. It’s supposed to be a real partnership driven by this student internship.
It’s also exceedingly low risk for the company. They aren’t hiring the students or taking on the liability of having a research employee that they may not need for more than eight months. The only risk the company has is that they’re paying for a fixed number of months of high quality student problem solving.
If it works out, then they may choose to take the student on or enter into a new research area. And, considering the quality of the talent, it’s very low cost. I mean to pay $7,500 bucks for four months of a PhD level student with advanced training and just the area you need to help, not a bad price to pay.
Is there a typical time limit on how long projects can last?
Hepburn: The minimum is four to six months. A single internship unit is typically four months of work for a single student, but we have projects that have hundreds of internship units, spread over three years or more. So if there’s a consortium of companies that wants a body of work done, or there’s a big company that wants a body of work done, it’s going to take three years and involve many, many students and postdoctoral fellows.
We take that in as a proposal, and we make a decision on the overall project. Then, as the project progresses, they’ll identify specific students. We don’t bill the companies until the student is identified, and we have a start date. Everything we do is very specific: For this four month period, this student is going to be working on the project, and then the company pays for that student and the money gets transferred to the university.
How are companies and researchers matched up?
Hepburn: Projects get developed in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, Mitacs does the matchmaking. We have currently more than 100 business development professionals across Canada. So chances are, if you’re an industry in pick-a-Canadian-city, and you’ve got a problem, our business development people can find out about this.
They are all always in contact with their local post-secondary institutions and local industry. They’ll find out about problems that some industry potential partner has, and they’ll say, ‘We have just the professor and students at the local university or a university down the road, that are actually interested in the same problem.’
Sometimes, the university professor has a pre-existing partnership with a company. Sometimes the company gets created as a result of university discoveries, like it’s a spin-off company of the university. So the potential projects come at us in many different ways, either driven by the professor and the students, or a company that was founded out of the university, or industry looking for somebody in the university could help them out. And the secret for us is the business development people are the ones who do the matchmaking and sort of shepherd the projects through to hopefully a happy ending.
Is there a limit to how many projects Mitacs can take on?
Hepburn: There is a funding limit; clearly, these things cost money, but we’ve got quite a good deal of money from the provinces and the federal government. Last year, we did 17,000 of these four month work units. Now, that’s not 17,000 projects or 17,000 students, but it’s getting on to 10,000 students, and it’s getting on to several thousand projects. In fact, we’ve been doubling in size about every three years.
These projects range from a small company that needs a student for eight months to a dozen students and postdocs working for three years. So on average, we do several thousand of these projects a year. We work with 6,000 to 7,000 companies, most of them small-to-medium enterprises, which is the way the Canadian economy is structured. Even so, there are a lot more companies out there that could use the help and there are a lot of students out there who could use the experience.
Are there common misconceptions that you run into?
Hepburn: There are several misconceptions. One of the most common is that PhD students aren’t that useful to a company, because they’re ‘academic minded’, they just want to be professors, they’re ‘kids’. We always find that, when the companies actually do take on one of these students, they discover that no, actually PhD students know how to solve problems.
Another misconception is that, because of the Mitacs acronym, we’re just in the technology business, and we’re only providing computer scientists and engineers. That is a large fraction of our business, but we can also provide social science students or, in some cases, humanities students. We can provide whatever talent a company needs; we’re not just restricted to dealing with engineers and computer science.
And then finally, it’s the notion of what it takes to be successful. Canada doesn’t have as innovative an economy and an industry base as I’d like to see. And so I think it’s just the whole notion that prosperity is linked to innovation. Yes, a company can make money without being very innovative, but I don’t know if that’s a good long term strategy. What we’re trying to do is promote the idea that actually everybody’s more prosperous and productive if they’re more innovative.