ne could be forgiven for believing that there’s not much to Canada aside from hockey, beer and accents straight out of the movie Fargo. After all, most of us of a certain generation learned everything we thought we’d ever need to know about America’s underpopulated neighbor to the north by watching Strange Brew. But during the decade that gave us this Canadian cult classic (along with mastabutory 1980s fare like Porky’s, a Canadian-American production), Canada was actually leading the world in artificial intelligence research. You might be more familiar with the McKenzie brothers, but Canucks like Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio are legendary for their work in developing artificial neural networks.
Fast-forward a few decades and Canada, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, appears poised to wrestle back its title, as Canadian AI startups are flowing out of research hubs like Toronto and Montreal like so much maple syrup. A recent count pegged the number at more than 550 and counting.
The government, led by a much better looking version of billionaire Mark Cuban in Justin Trudeau, has pledged nearly $100 million to support AI research centers across the country, the New York Times reported. That announcement came shortly after news that a new research center, the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Toronto, would be established with $130 million in public and private dollars. Corporate sponsors include tech giants such as Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA).
Justin Trudeau, at right (we think), and Mark Cuban.
The hope is not only to spur growth in Canadian AI startups but to curb the exodus and exits of homegrown talent. Even Hinton, the so-called godfather of artificial neural networks (how computers are able to learn independent of programming), joined Google after his company DNNresearch was bought in 2013. The rise of a new sort of nationalist pride found its biggest expression with the recent emergence of Element AI and its mega-round last month.
Founded just last year in French-speaking Montreal, Element AI scored a big goal with a $102 million Series A in June. Investors included Microsoft Ventures, Intel Capital and Nvidia. Want to deploy artificial intelligence in your business but have no clue where to start? Maybe the idea of doing it yourself with pre-fab AI software sounds too intimidating? Canadian AI startup Element AI has you covered. The company has rostered some of Canada’s top AI scientists, who retain their academic posts while working on corporate projects. In other words, Element AI wants to bring machine-learning business solutions to the masses, with AI Software as a Service. But it promises to be more than that, doubling as an incubator for other AI startups in the process and even proposing joint ventures with clients.
Just a few of the AI researchers on call at Element AI.
Element AI co-founder Yoshua Bengio, as we mentioned earlier, is a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. It also doesn’t hurt that he has an advisory role with Microsoft (always follow the money). The other half of the dynamic duo at Element AI is a guy named Jean-François Gagné. No idea who he is but his blog has tons of useful info on Canadian AI startups.
Element AI isn’t the only fresh-faced Canadian AI startup with marquee names behind it. Intergrate.ai is only six months old and got a $5 million Seed round to get started in February. Still a more back-of-the-napkin concept than working company thus far, Integrate appears to fall loosely into the same category as Element AI: AI as a Service. As Globe and Mail reported, Integrate’s future clients, such as banks or retailers, would use the startup’s AI platform to customize offerings as the machine learned more about a customer’s preference, like Netflix does with movie options.
Former Facebook executive Steve Irvine is at the helm. Much has been made in the news about Integrate’s lone backer—Georgian Capital, a firm that normally prefers to bet on startups at later growth stages when they’re already earning a few (hundred thousand) bucks.
Invenia out of Winnipeg uses machine learning to make power grids work smarter. The 11-year-old Canadian AI startup took in $5 million from a Series A in May from Zetta Venture Partners, which focuses on early stage AI startups. The company says its AI system plugs into big data to find the most efficient ways to generate, transmit and deliver electricity, with the goal to decrease pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. It sounds like its technology would fit in well with our smart city of the future. Invenia claims it improves the efficiency of the electrical grid for over 37 GWh of power (enough to run two million homes for a year), while lowering CO2 emissions by more than two million tons, the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road.
Ottawa-based MindBridge claims to have built the first AI auditor. The bravado—the company started marketing and selling the product while it was also a back-of-the-napkin concept—earned it $4.3 million in a Seed round last month. The “anomaly detection engine” is designed to help reduce the workload of professional auditors by identifying suspicious activity.
The company now has 30 clients, according to the Globe and Mail, and recently announced it would work with the Bank of England on a proof of concept as part of the bank’s fintech accelerator program. We’ve seen other startups apply AI to accounting but few seem to be focused solely on audits. Let’s hope the IRS doesn’t hear about this one.
Leave it to the Canadians to come up with a nicer way to say AI chatbot. Crowdcare has raised $7.45 million over four rounds in support of its “cognitive digital care solutions”. The most recent round was a Series A in March that brought in $1.7 million. Here’s their pitch on why you should choose their platform, dubbed Wysdom:
Wysdom relies on natural language processing to understand questions and shoot back the right answer. The platform is specially trained for companies peddling the Internet of Things, able to answer nearly 85,000 questions and handle 60 percent of queries without a human soul being involved.