Montreal AI firms hope last-minute gambit for federal cash pays off

The federal government has almost $1 billion to give to high-tech clusters, and Montreal's booming artificial intelligence community said it was left out.

News of the $950-million federal fund only reached some companies last weekend, sparking last minute drive

Yoshua Bengio, co-founder of Element AI, is one of the pioneering researchers of artificial intelligence in Montreal. His company is one of several hoping to get federal funding. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Members of Montreal's artificial intelligence community were left scrambling this week for a share in a nearly $1-billion federal innovation fund.

A number of the city's smaller AI companies only found out about the federal government's $950-million Innovation Superclusters Initiative last weekend, and the deadline to apply was July 21.

The initiative provides up to $250 million to eligible industry organizations, which then divvy up the funds among their members.

The eligible organizations represent large and small companies, universities and non-profit research groups, and each organization must have capital commitments already lined up.

Although Montreal's AI sector is becoming well-known thanks to some big recent investments, many companies are still young and small and aren't part of any such organization.

Open letter helps save the day

For some, news of the federal funding only reached them last Saturday, during an informal discussion at Montreal's StartupFest.

"We realized that none of us were talking to the groups making the applications," said Evan Prodromou, CEO of startup "We haven't heard from them. We were confused."

Evan Prodromou, CEO of Montreal's, says small startups should be involved in discussions to build the local AI industry. (Kate McKenna/CBC News)
That sparked a mad rush to get the attention of the groups eligible to apply, which included the publication of an open letter.

"With this letter we're saying we're here. There's an AI industry in Montreal. We want to engage with the government," Prodromou said. "This particular opportunity is so big we can't just let it go."

The gambit worked. By the end of the day on Thursday, the companies were hearing from large investment groups like the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

Government deadlines limited outreach

​"I see it as a huge letter of support for our application and to work together," said Pierre Boivin, CEO of Claridge Investments Ltd. and co-chairman of a provincial steering committee on AI.

"We are speaking with most signatories on the letter and we see this as a collaborative process," Boivin said.

As to why MILA didn't it reach out to small AI firms, Boivin said the government's deadlines were too tight.

"It's impossible, when the government gives you seven weeks, to talk to the entire community," he said.