The top official from the MITACS Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) is crisscrossing the country to line up support for the management of a new Industrial R&D Internship (IRDI) program to boost the amount of private sector R&D performed in Canada. The Vancouver-based NCE is submitting a bid to manage the new NCE program, which launched a competition for organizations to administer $8.6 million in funding to establish approximately 600 internships with Canadian firms over the next two years.
As described in the last federal Budget, the IRDI program is modeled on MITAC's highly successful internship program, giving the Network a clear head-start to win the right to its administration. The only real question is whether MITACS will have to share those duties with other organizations since the call for proposals specifies that up to six such organizations can be selected. Rules specify that any successful organization must commit to managing a minimum of 100 internships.
"The competition is open to organizations that are NCEs and NCE-like groups (positioned) between universities and industry with experience in delivering collaborative programs," says Jean-Claude Gavrel, director of the NCE program directorate, adding that the program's rollout is scheduled for April/08. "It could be existing NCEs either singly or in a group and there could be more than one."
MITACS's own internship program has been active for five years and has been lauded for its effectiveness in providing university graduates with real-world experience in a private sector environment. The MITACS program now supports 260 internships annually and if MITACS becomes the IRDI program administrator that number will more than double.
Giving MITACS an even stronger advantage is its proposal to use IRDI to enact a significant cultural change within the business community by demonstrating the benefits of hiring skilled S&T personnel. The so-called hand-skills component of the MITACS proposal suggests that it could extend the focus of the IRDI program beyond its current scope.
"We think we've put together a strong case to run the national program with only one organization," says Dr Arvind Gupta, MITACS's CEO and scientific director. "We also think it should be much more than internships. There's an opportunity to create an entrepreneurial class … of people set to take advantage of opportunities in the private sector. We need to change the culture of research one company at a time."
While waiting for the IRDI program's launch, Gupta has lined up agreements with eight provinces to run either pilot internship programs or full-fledged initiatives such as its agreement with British Columbia. Earlier this year the BC government provided $10 million over four years to create at least 650 internships across the full spectrum of disciplines.
Funding has also been secured for Atlantic Canada through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Western Canada through Western Economic Diversification. Quebec has also funded a pilot program and Gupta says the prospects are good for its extension.
That leaves only Ontario without an existing agreement, but Gupta says there have been "close negotiations" over the past six months and submissions to the provincial Treasury Board are being made leading into the next provincial Budget.
"The partnership has to be three-way between the federal and provincial governments and industry," he says. "We've developed a program and we're already doing 260 internships without federal funding."
For its core internship program, MITACS has established a network of six offices across the country to facilitate match-making between companies and researchers. Gupta says this connector role has to be implemented at the local level to ensure that the research needs of companies are properly addressed.
When the IRDI program was announced earlier this year, Budget documents stated, "When fully in place, the new program will support up to 1,000 students each year." That suggests a tripling of the start-up budget of $4 million annually, giving it a scope that provides a major boost for private sector R&R performance and the hiring of skilled graduates.
"Canada has a cultural problem of not doing enough R&D industry so we tend to train students for the rest of the world. Students are leaving the country," says Gupta. "We need to get students doing research with companies even if we have to help pay for it."
MITACS's bid to become the sole administrator of the IRDI program is by no means a slam dunk. At least one other established organization — Precarn Inc — is preparing its own proposal, drawing on its well-honed model of managing collaborative university-industry projects.
"We intend to put in our own letter of interest. This program is a natural kind of link for an organization like Precarn," says Paul Johnston, Precarn's president and CEO.
Johnston notes that the IRDI eligibility criteria explicitly mention fourth-pillar organizations — a term used to describe entities such as Precarn, CMC Microsystems and CANARIE Inc.
Those three organizations banded together several years ago to advocate expanded mandates and funding to addresses gaps in the commercialization process (R$, June 9, 2003). While that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, Johnston says Precarn's niche expertise and ability to focus all sectors on specific industry research needs are valuable assets for a program such as IRDI.
"Is this something that requires some sense of domain to get access to the right companies? We operate at the interface between universities and companies in the area of intelligent ICT (information and communications technologies)," he says. "Every year for the past four years we have managed 54 graduate scholarships and in the old days with IRIS (the sunsetted Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems) we ran a work term program for graduate students."
The IRDI program is also open to consortia of firms, universities and colleges and groups can band together to apply, with one organization designated as lead. Gupta says MITACS would consider partnering with another organization if it makes sense.
"Precarn would be an ideal partner going forward. There are lots out there," he says.
The IRDI program specifies that each internship stipend must be at least $10,000 for a 4-6 month period, with the IRDI program providing a maximum of 50% of eligible costs. Each internship agreement will be between a company and a university professor, with the research conducted by the graduate student or post-doctoral fellow.
"There must be 50% matching from industry and other sources such as provincial programs," says Gavrel. "The programs can run concurrently and leverage provincial funds and it could fund the same interns."