Canada unveils as an AI powerhouse
As a firm, White Star Capital has been active investor in the Canadian startup ecosystem, as individual members of the team, several of us have been founders, entrepreneurs and angel investors in Canada going back more than a decade. We’ve publicly stated how bullish we are on Canadian entrepreneurs, and a large part of that is tied to the amazing talent, especially around algorithmic minds and AI.
What had been a well-known secret has now turned into a very visible story and the Canadian government is playing a large part in ensuring that Canada continues to have a leadership role in an enabling technology that it helped incubate during the “winter of AI.” It was after all in Canada that the “Canadian Mafia” of Geoffrey Hinton (now at Google), Yann LeCun (now at Facebook) and Yoshua Bengio (now co-founder of Element.ai) led their “deep learning conspiracy.”
The visible acceleration of government, corporate and VC focus on Canadian AI has happened very quickly in the past few months:
In March, 2017 the Canadian government announced $125M CAD for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy fund.
$40M of that was quickly invested in the same month by the government alongside Google, Nvidia and others into the Vector Institute, which saw Geoff Hinton return to University of Toronto from Mountain View to serve as Chief Scientific Adviser to Vector.
Over at the University of Montreal, a similar initiative was mounted around Bengio and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) built around Richard Sutton, a pioneer in reinforcement learning.
In total, the Canadian government and partners deployed over $500M CAD to signal their strategic prioritisation around AI in under 5 months.
And now this month (June, 2017) those moves by the government where soon matched by VC and corporates with the $102M initial round to create Element.ai in Montreal in collaboration with MILA and just this week, Google’s AI research arm, DeepMind announcing the opening of its first non-London research facility in Edmonton in partnership with Richard Sutton and Amii.
Government, corporate and VC money is indeed moving quickly to create AI “superclusters” in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, but as Bengio himself calls for in a recent article, this is just the beginning, as the innovation from labs must now be transferred into innovation by startups and corporates alike.
At White Star we have already backed a number of Canadian startups, such as mnubo, IMMUNIO, Drop and Gymtrack, taking advantage of the local algorithmic talent and continue to be on the lookout for more. The only difference is that the world now seems to know about the opportunity as well, which makes us even more excited as more resources, funding and opportunity starts focusing on these AI clusters.
As JF Gagne (CEO of Element.ai) helps illustrate with the graphic below, the opportunity for Canada, for founders and for investors is clearly in front of us.
The public unveiling of Canada as an AI powerhouse is now quite clear and the opening quote from Bengio’s recent article sums it up best:
“It’s rare for Canadians to come out and assert global leadership in anything (barring hockey and winter coats), but here we are, on the brink of adding artificial intelligence (AI) to the list.”