One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.
The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.
It's equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.
It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.
'We're looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts.' - Jean-François Gagné
In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company's funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.
They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company's headquarters in Montreal.
The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI's strategy from some of the world's biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.
"If we want Canada to be a leader in AI, we need to have companies like Element AI which can grow fast, because this is such a fast changing scene," Bengio told CBC News.
"As a nation I think it's really important that we provide the best conditions for the next Google and Facebook to arise from Canada."
The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.
What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.
"We're looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts," Gagné said. "We already have quite a few, but we're looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.
"And at this point, it's no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we're going after."
Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company's products.
While the Element AI hasn't accepted any startups into its incubator program so far, Gagné says it expects to announce its first soon, a robotics company. The plan is to have 20 startups working with Element AI within the next 12 months.
Millions to go around
Element AI isn't the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.
In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.
And not to be outdone, there has been a flurry of recent activity in Toronto, too.
The creation of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence was announced in March, with more than $150 million in funding from the provincial and federal governments and private companies including Google and Shopify. Geoffrey Hinton, considered one of the fathers of a popular branch of machine learning research called deep learning, is the institute's chief scientific adviser.
In May, Uber opened a lab in Toronto for research on self-driving cars. A San Francisco-based company called Ross Intelligence, which uses AI to perform legal analysis for law firms, also setup shop in Toronto earlier this month.
"AI has become a global battle with large players around the world investing simultaneously in research and developing products," said Bengio.
"Element AI is looking at particular types of customers that are not necessarily currently well served by the market, but could become one of these global giants. That's the game that I think we need to be playing."