Skip to main content

One + one = success

Take a Canadian company with a problem, add the expertise of a graduate student, and the result is a solved business problem and a grad with shop-floor experience. That is the simple math behind the fabulously successful MITACS.

by Michael Smith

At 29, polymer chemist Bronwyn Gillon felt burned out – exhausted by the effort of getting her doctorate and frustrated by the often narrow academic approach to problems. But during a postdoctoral fellowship at Simon Fraser University, all that changed, thanks to a program run by the Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems Network of Centres of Excellence, or MITACS for short.

“When I finished my PhD, I was quite tired and I thought I didn’t really want to do any more synthetic chemistry,” Dr. Gillon says. But, after a short break, she decided to make one last push. She began postdoctoral work under Neil Branda, a professor of chemistry at SFU working on advanced materials. Yet, the sometimes narrow academic approach to problems remained a problem for her. In academia, says Dr. Gillon, researchers are “always tweaking things … it’s really repetitive and there’s lots of failure, and that started to wear on me.”

That’s where MITACS entered the picture. The organization runs an internship program, dubbed Accelerate, that links young scientists with industry.  As it happened, Dr. Branda, who holds a Canada Research Chair in materials science, had started a company called Switch Materials that’s developing a suite of compounds that change their optical properties on demand, rather like the substance in some eyeglasses that darkens in sunlight. Switch needed an intern to work on a specific problem; Dr. Branda knew of MITACS and Accelerate, and Dr. Gillon got the job.

mitacs_210

The change was a breath of fresh air for his postdoc fellow. “The internship was a good exposure to the industrial way of thinking, which suits me much better,” says Dr. Gillon. She could pick a good approach to a problem and, if it seemed sterile after awhile, try another, rather than walking down all the dead ends to make sure nothing was missed. The experience revived her interest in chemistry and – a not inconsiderable benefit – led to a full-time job with Switch. For her, it was a relief: “It meant that I hadn’t wasted all that time and effort to get a PhD.”

Even a few years ago, this scenario would have been rare. Canada’s corporate and academic worlds have long been “parallel universes” that rarely intersect at this level, according to analyst Ron Freedman, a partner in Toronto’s Impact Group (which, among other things, publishes the R&D newsletter Research Money). Sure, the universities have been involved in technology transfer, but that’s small potatoes – about $53 million a year in total revenue against $51 million in costs. “There’s no profit in tech transfer,” Mr. Freedman says, despite the occasional money-spinner.

The real economic impact, wrote Mr. Freedman recently, is in research that companies contract to Canadian universities, worth more than $1 billion a year. Now, MITACS is leading the charge in what Mr. Freedman sees as an exciting new direction: business engagement.

The organization started in 1999 as one of the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence, with the goal, as chief executive Arvind Gupta puts it, of figuring out ways to get mathematicians and industry talking with one another. Other countries manage to have such a dialogue, with attendant economic benefits, and “the question was why Canada does such a poor job of this,” Dr. Gupta says.

Within a few years, MITACS had sparked some interaction between its members and industry. “But I had some pesky private-sector members of my board who kept talking about outcomes,” recalls Dr. Gupta. They weren’t satisfied with the observation that MITACS appeared to be outperforming some other NCEs or even that the gap between the math community and industry seemed to be shrinking. Instead, they wanted to see progress on solving a bigger question: Why is there a chasm between the university, where knowledge is created, and industry, where it can be used? And, perhaps even more important, what could be done to close the gap?

At its root, says Dr. Gupta, the issue is that a knowledge economy is a people economy. The added value comes from education. But in Canada, he continues, despite an excellent university system, opportunities for educated people have been limited, compared with many other countries. This manifests itself in graduate students leaving the country and taking with them their expensive education – at a total cost from kindergarten to PhD of about $500,000. “Every time one of my graduate students leaves with a PhD and goes to Microsoft,” he says, “we’re essentially handing Microsoft half-a-million dollars.”

How to stem that age-old trend? Lecturing industry hasn’t worked. Nor have shocked-and-alarmed articles in magazines or newspapers. But it seemed to Dr. Gupta and his colleagues that if Canadian industry – and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises – could see tangible, bottom-line benefits from integrating science into their operations, they might find it worthwhile to provide the opportunities that would keep the vanishing grad students at home.

Enter Accelerate.

In a way, the Accelerate program is an extension of the co-op programs that some universities have long managed, putting students into the private sector for a semester. The difference is that co-op programs often are a form of corporate charity. The students are simply farmed out, and no one asks whether they bring anything to the company table. That’s not the way to go, Dr. Gupta insists. Instead, the interns involved in Accelerate go to participating companies with the goal of helping to solve a concrete problem that the company already knows it has.

Consider, for instance, the problem faced by Pressure Pipe Inspection Company, a Mississauga, Ontario, firm that assesses the condition of large-diameter underground pipe systems – things like sewers and water lines. One of their tools is a free-swimming device called PipeDiver that’s used to monitor the condition of buried pipes, according to Xiangjie Kong, the company’s vice-president for technology. The problem was how to follow the device as it moved through the pipe.

For that, the company turned to an Accelerate intern from Ryerson University to develop a mapping system. The result, says Mr. Kong, was “pretty cool stuff” that enhances the firm’s ability to do its job. It’s likely that company staff could have developed the technology themselves, but “we can’t have all types of expertise as in-house resources,” he notes. The Accelerate program offered a short-cut.

That’s an example of MITACS’s main idea – making sure Canadian companies (especially small- to medium-sized enterprises) are aware that universities are pools of potentially profitable expertise. “We say, ‘give us your problems, and we’ll find out what kind of discipline, what kind of people it will take to solve them,’” Dr. Gupta explains.

And the system is working. There were just 18 interns when Accelerate started in 2004; in 2010, more than 1,000 took their brains into the workplace to help some 600 companies. And they’re not all mathematicians – like Dr. Gillon, many are chemists. Others are studying engineering, physics or genetics, as well as less obvious disciplines like dentistry, folklore and music. Overall, Dr. Gupta says, Accelerate has placed students from 54 universities who are studying in 32 different academic areas.

It’s not a free ride for the companies, either. For a simple problem, involving one intern for one semester, a company must commit $15,000 – half in cash and half in internal support for the student to work on the issue. Then MITACS, using resources from federal and provincial governments, puts up another $7,500. The interaction can be scaled up by $15,000 increments – “like LEGO blocks,” says Dr. Gupta – if a problem needs more time or more interns.

What about the graduate brain drain? That’s a bit harder to measure, but, as good scientists, Dr. Gupta and his colleagues are trying. One approach is to compare what happens to students from similar departments that are or aren’t taking part in Accelerate. He says the data suggest that students in the participating departments are 25 percent more likely to stay in Canada after they graduate.

While Accelerate is the showpiece, MITACS has other irons in the fire. A pilot program in Ontario, called Elevate, is aimed at giving postdoctoral fellows the skills to run a research team in industry. Another program, Globalink, brings undergraduates from India to some of the top research universities in British Columbia, Ontario and New Brunswick. And MITACS has forged links with mathematicians outside Canada to study the math of disease spread, security, finance and biomedicine.

The NCE part of the organization is winding down; like all NCEs, it has a sunset clause, which for MITACS means that most of its funding stops in 2012. But the end of the NCE won’t end the broader MITACS program, which has separate financial support from governments, industry and universities.

“MITACS started out as an NCE, but … it has grown into something far bigger,” says Tom Salisbury, a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at York University and member of the MITACS board of directors. “The infrastructure that was created for the NCE allowed them to develop a really impressive array of other new activities.”

Nonetheless, for Canadian mathematicians, the NCE had value in its own right. The connection between advanced math and the real world – although it may seem tenuous to many – is long-standing, according to Matthias Neufang, deputy director of the Fields Institute, the math think-tank based at the University of Toronto. Physical and chemical problems that arose in industry have led to new mathematics, which in turn has led to solutions that have wide applications, Dr. Neufang says. Now, new fields – such as biomedicine and finance – are beginning to interact with the world of math.

But experts in those fields often need interpreters when they approach the mathematicians, he says. The value of MITACS has been to “have the right people and ask the right questions.”

Dr. Salisbury agrees. MITACS “delivered in a big way on the promise it made when set up, namely, to change the culture of mathematics in Canada,” he says. “It got a broad swath of the Canadian mathematical community engaged with industry. The whole discipline of applied mathematics flourished as a result, and MITACS got very good at placing mathematics graduate students into industrial internships.”

A kind of “secular trend” has developed among mathematicians in recent years to broaden their horizons, says Jacques Hurtubise, chair of the department of mathematics and statistics at McGill University and president of the Canadian Mathematical Society. “We have some people doing very pure mathematics who also have papers in mathematical biology,” he says, and a large proportion of people with new doctorates in math now set their career sights outside the academy.

Whether MITACS has fostered that trend or ridden it – or perhaps a bit of both – “it has certainly brought applied mathematics to the fore” in this country, says Dr. Hurtubise. One consequence is a growing realization in industry that “this stuff can be useful.”

“You have to take your hat off to MITACS,” concludes the Impact Group’s Mr. Freedman. “They’ve taken what at first glance is a completely esoteric field of academic subject matter – mathematics – and made it relevant to the outside world.” And the broader model of linking industry with a host of disciplines is well worth emulating, he adds, because despite MITACS’s success, the engagement of the academy with the marketplace is “still, by and large, nascent.”

On the other hand, it might have been naïve to expect more than that in the few years MITACS has been operating. “The knowledge economy has a lot of pieces to it,” notes Dr. Gupta. “I don’t think there is a single over-arching solution.” So, “let’s try things, and the stuff that works, let’s scale it up.”

Print Comments (0) Post a comment
Email Reprint Share Share

Post a comment

University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.