Million Dollar PhD

Industry partnerships

If your research may be relevant to an organisation, or if you want to do some kind of side project with one, you have several options for industry partnerships. Such partnerships challenge you to step outside of academia and consider the potential practical value of your research. These awards tend to be based around a project, which may or may not be your thesis.

Mitacs Accelerate

Mitacs Accelerate funds an internship at a (usually Canadian) company or not-for-profit organisation. “Internship” here is broad: you work on your research project at your own university and spend some of your time at the organisation headquarters. The project needs to be important for both academia and the organisation. Mitacs (a government agency) and the organisation each contribute half of the funding. For larger projects, Mitacs contributes a bit more than half.

These awards pay at least $20,000 per year on top of other awards and can be held for several years. The difficult part is finding the interested organisation and a relevant project, but after that the process is simple: Mitacs will almost always match their funding. This is one of the cases where everyone benefits. The organisation gets a researcher for a low fee, Mitacs benefits by promoting research in Canada, and you get experience in industry while completing grad school. Many Mitacs interns end up working at the partner organisation after their degree.

As of 2021, Master’s students can complete up to four internship “units”, which are 4- to 6-month stints. Each stint pays a $10,000 stipend plus $5,000 in project funds which can be spent on anything: equipment, participant costs, research assistant fees, or just more salary. Completing all of the units would give a total of $60,000, at least $40,000 of which is stipend. PhD students can complete up to 8 units, for a total of between $107,000 and $120,000, of which at least $80,000 is stipend. You can partner with colleagues to create projects of however many units you desire, as long as each student does not exceed the individual limit. Mitacs awards pay well but require the novel and sometimes nerve-wracking process of finding and meeting with companies.

Finding an organisation

Mitacs posts internship descriptions for open positions with interested organisations and pre-set project ideas. If you find an organisation elsewhere, search for them on the Mitacs site to see whether they have engaged in these partnerships before. The methods described earlier to find funders also apply to finding companies and other organisations. Ask around your network, check funding acknowledgements, and see which organisations sponsor relevant conferences. My colleagues and I tend to prefer working with small companies (who tend to move faster and are more likely to reply to emails), so searching your city name and “startups” is a good start to explore the options.

Our team has set up three of these partnerships before (and failed to set up three others). One of the partnerships, for example, funded part of our shift work fatigue study described earlier. The partnering company made wristband sensors that collect measures such as body temperature. We used them in our study to track sleep times, and the company benefited by seeing how their sensors perform in the context of a sleep study.

Send a short email

As a first step, we will often contact the CEO (if it’s a startup) or someone with a title closest to “Head of Research and Development”. Here is the email we usually send that always gets us at least a reply:

Subject: Research collaboration with McGill University

Hello,

I am a PhD student at [lab] at McGill University working with [professor]. Our lab studies [relevant topics for company].

We are interested in your technology at [company] and would like to explore the possibility of collaborating on a behavioural research project looking at [topic].

It would be great to discuss this with you or someone from your team.

Thanks,
Jay

We use the university name in the title for credibility, call it a “collaboration” because everyone loves collaborations, and keep it broad since there may be little information available on the company. If you do not want to contact the company yourself, sometimes your university’s Mitacs representative can also reach out on your behalf and help you set up a meeting.

Discuss the potential partnership

Assuming you get a positive reply, the first goal is to set up a meeting. The meeting can be simple and fairly informal: we introduce ourselves and then explain a little bit about our research. We mention Mitacs, which we describe as a government organisation that will match funding on a project relevant to both academia and the company.

During the conversation, we ask the company two main questions:

  1. How could a research project help your organisation? (Depending on how much we know about the organisation, usually we have some rough ideas brainstormed in advance.)

  2. Where do you see the organisation going next, such as expanding into new areas?

I have always been surprised at how little my colleagues and I speak during these meetings. Companies will mention areas relevant for future projects and will usually love talking about their future aims. We keep the discussion quite unstructured, especially with startups when there is relatively little information known in advance.

Never at these meetings has anyone asked about our GPA, and perhaps once in a later meeting we were asked for a CV. Companies care more about what you can do than your list of previous scholarly accomplishments. They also care about your resources: universities have access to equipment, participants, expertise, and collaborations that can be difficult to find internally.

Usually we try to meet the company on campus rather than at their headquarters. During one of our first Mitacs meetings, we showed up an hour early and continued our planning at a nearby café. We walked into the office building ten minutes early and then realised we had gone to the company’s old address. We arrived at their proper address twenty minutes late, the meeting did not go well, and we did not move forward. It’s worth triple-checking such details when meeting off campus.

Brainstorm ideas

After the first meeting, we brainstorm potential research projects. If any of them seem worthwhile, we’ll schedule another meeting with the company. This time, we’ll discuss some more specific ideas and will brainstorm the rest of the project with the company’s input.

Negotiate details

Ideally by the third meeting, we will have a draft proposal written that we present to the company during our conversation. The proposal is a few pages long and includes a rough sketch of the aims, methodology, and expected results. During this meeting, we also discuss the funding amount and try to reach some kind of verbal agreement. (Perhaps give this another meeting or two if it’s a bigger company.) Writing a draft proposal is a fair amount of work for a project that hasn’t yet been confirmed, so don’t wait too long — if the company is still very hesitant, it may not be a good match.

Go to the decision maker

When you ask for the company’s agreement, try to get confirmation from whoever will be providing the money: usually some kind of head of department rather than an assistant. Do not assume that the company has stellar internal communication.

We learned this the hard way during one of our early applications. I had mentioned to a friend that we were looking to do a project with some kind of psychology- or neuroscience-related company, and he suggested his friend who was a CEO. We reached out to the CEO who put us in touch with his assistant. We chatted with the assistant on and off for several months planning a large study. When our proverbial third (perhaps eighth) meeting arrived, we went down to the company headquarters to collect the final signatures.

We walked into the board room. The CEO sat down and asked, “So, what’s this about?”

“The knowledge transfer project we’ve been planning with Charlie.”

“Oh Charlie? Yeah he’s got some ideas doesn’t he. So what is this about? Give me a run-down.”

We gave an impromptu pitch to the executives, the CEO told us they don’t fund research projects, and that was it. Lesson learned: try to get to the decision quickly, or at least reach the decision-maker quickly.

Submit

If you haven’t already by this point, you should also contact your university’s Mitacs representative to tell them about the company’s interest. This representative will assist with logistics or setting up the application before you send it to Mitacs for review. The decision outcome is so certain that they ask the company for the money as soon as you submit the application.

The review process takes a few months and seems to focus on improving the project rather than deciding whether to accept or reject it. They contact a few researchers in the field to evaluate the project based on questions such as:

Of all of the funders I have applied to, Mitacs gives some of the best feedback. It is considerably more detailed than what you can expect from most governmental awards.

NSERC Alliance grant as an alternative

An alternative to the Mitacs award is the NSERC Alliance grant. The primary applicant would be a professor rather than a student, but the overall process is roughly similar: you build a project with a partner who can be a company, public-sector organisation, or a not-for-profit organisation. NSERC then provides between 50% of the project funding for big companies to 100% for not-for-profit and public organisations. The application process targets professors and so is more complicated than the Mitacs Accelerate.

Downsides of industry partnerships

These partnerships have several major downsides. First, finding an organisation can be difficult. If finding general awards is an ill-defined process, finding a company is far more so. It requires you to be a bit “scrappy” and resourceful. Second, depending on the research you do, there might be intellectual property challenges. You work out any IP issues with the company in advance, but you would not want to do an internship if your research would be patentable on its own. Third, industry partnerships are generally easier with more applied and practical research, since it has to be useful for the company or organisation.

Conflicts of interest

Another downside is potential conflicts of interest. As with all awards, but particularly with external or company funding, acknowledge the funder in your manuscripts and disclose any potential conflicts. These conflicts may sound like a big deal; one imagines the rogue scientist p-hacking the results to appease Big Pharma or some other necessarily capitalised Big Industry. In reality, potential conflicts of interest are plentiful and often mundane; it makes sense that an interested partner would want to fund related research.

Often journals will ask for an explicit disclosure or else a statement such as: “This study was funded by X. The funder had no additional role in any part of the study or manuscript.” Avoid conflicts when you can, otherwise liberally disclose them as Smith suggests:1

Problems rarely flow from declaring conflicts of interest, but they do arise when they are discovered to exist when not declared. We live in a world, whether we like it or not, where what is not transparent is assumed to be biased, corrupt, or incompetent until proved otherwise.

It is true that it may be more difficult to publish a manuscript with a conflict of interest, depending on how much the conflict could potentially influence your results. A minor conflict would involve using a company’s equipment for a secondary measure in the study; a larger one would involve evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention developed by the company. Weigh these consequences against the benefits of applying for the award, such as more funding and additional scientific review.


  1. R. Smith, “Conflicts of Interest: How Money Clouds Objectivity,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99, no. 6 (June 2006): 292–97, https://doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.99.6.292.↩︎