Facebook has announced it’s expanding its artificial intelligence research group with a new lab in Montreal. The location currently employs 10 researchers but the company aims to triple the number of positions in the next few months.
The announcement has provided a significant boost to Canada’s already flourishing tech industry. Facebook said the team working out of the lab will be exploring a “wide range” of AI research projects. In particular, the group will focus on systems specialised in reinforcement learning and dialog inference.
The lab will be headed by Professor Joelle Pineau, co-director of the Reasoning and Learning Lab in Computer Science at McGill University. Pineau has previously designed algorithms that assist robots in learning new procedures, reasoning with themselves and planning approaches to problems.
Anticipatory, Thoughtful AI
Facebook’s recently signalled a growing interest in anticipatory, thoughtful AI. The Montreal research centre will allow it to pursue further investments in the area. The lab will be partnered with several Canadian institutes, including the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA). It’ll also work with Facebook’s AI Research teams in Menlo Park, New York and Paris.
“Montreal already has an existing fantastic academic AI community, an exciting ecosystem of startups, and promising government policies to encourage AI research,” said Facebook in a recent press release. “We are excited to become part of this larger community, and we look forward to engaging with the entire ecosystem and helping it to continue to thrive.”
The launch of the lab was assisted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec innovation minister Dominique Anglade. For Canada, one of the foremost countries in AI research, Facebook’s announcement has been a welcome recognition of its academic lead in the field. The decision will help to keep Canada’s talent within its borders.
Growing numbers of companies are beginning to choose Canada as a base for their AI research efforts. Facebook’s joining tech firms including Google and Microsoft in investing in Canada. Earlier this year, Uber announced it’s moving into the country too. The company wants to tap into Canadian AI expertise to aid the development of self-driving cars.
Facebook’s already opened its new lab with an initial team of 10 researchers. The company intends to triple that figure in the coming years, indicating a long-term commitment to harbouring an AI research group in Montreal. For the researchers graduating from Montreal University, it’s the opportunity they’ve been waiting for.
Which innovations will shape Canadian industry in 2019?
Canada is in the midst of an economic shift. New and traditional industries are increasingly being driven by innovation and these advances in technology are shifting the economic landscape at an unprecedented pace.
This is the assessment by Borden Ladner Gervais, which is Canada’s largest law firm. The company has issued a new thought leadership report, titled “Top Innovative Industries Shaping the Canadian Economy”.
The report weighs in on the opportunities and risks Canada faces in order to maintain its status as an international leader in innovation across eight key industries: cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, smart cities, cryptocurrency and blockchain, autonomous vehicles, fintech, renewable energy and cannabis.
To find out more about the report and its implications for Canadian businesses, Digital Journal spoke with Andrew Harrison, a partner at BLG.
Digital Journal: Where does Canada stand as a global tech innovator?
Andrew Harrison: Canada has always been at the forefront of innovation. Products developed by Canadians or Canadian companies encompass a variety of industries and include medicinal insulin, the snowmobile, the telephone, the pager, BlackBerry Messaging, IMAX, the Canadarm and the goalie mask, to name a few. Canadians are also fast adopters of new technologies; email money transfer between individuals, which was inconceivable only a few years ago, has been used by 63 per cent of Canadians.
This is why Canada is recognized worldwide for its research and technological know-how, but we have to be mindful of the challenges in a global competitive market.
DJ: What potential does Canada have to grow faster? Is this sector specific?
Harrison: Canada is well positioned to succeed and take the lead in all innovative industries, but there are definitely sector-specific challenges that could limit this growth. For example, the lack of regulation as to whether cryptocurrencies are considered securities or not is creating uncertainty, which may restrain investment in this sector.
DJ: What are the risks that could hamper innovation and development?
Harrison: For any new product, financing is always an issue; with innovation, money becomes an even more crucial element. Companies must have access to capital – including from individual and institutional investors – if they want to bring their innovative product/process to life. Evolving politics and policies can also have a significant impact.
DJ: What framework will Canada need in the future to secure its innovation potential?
Harrison: The key element is finding a proper balance between regulating the issues that might be created by the innovation itself or its use and providing a space where innovations can thrive without too many restrictions.
DJ: What does the Canadian government need to do?
Harrison: In many cases, laws and regulations were enacted long before we saw these innovative technologies and products brought to life, so they need to be updated. In certain sectors, such as cryptocurrencies and autonomous vehicles, the Canadian government has yet to provide a framework that would define the playing rules for all participants.
The government will also need to take a look at its current regulations on privacy: the coming into force in May 2018 of the European General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and recent high-profile data breaches have created the need for stronger privacy guidelines. Failure to do so could prevent Canadian businesses from accessing the European market.
DJ: What can academia contribute?
Harrison: Universities play a big role in fostering innovation – they could be the home of research and innovation and incubators of ventures, entrepreneurs, and tech talent. Universities can partner with industry players and have their researchers work closely to solve key industry issues. This is already happening in Canada. The Smith School of Business and Scotiabank, for instance, have partnered to set up the Scotiabank Centre of Customer Analytics at Smith School of Business to bring together professors, graduate students and analytics practitioners to collaborate on applied research projects in customer analytics. The academia plays a big role in creating an innovation ecosystem.
DJ: What is Canada’s most pressing technological need?
Harrison: There is still much work to be done to connect with Canada’s rural and remote communities. In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared that broadband Internet amounted to an essential service and adopted minimal performance standards across Canada: 50 megabit per second download and 10 megabit per second upload. However, the evidence presented to the Committee by a variety of stakeholders shows that the digital divide remains prominent in Canada – it is estimated that it will take roughly 10 to 15 years for the remaining 18% of Canadians to reach those minimums. Canada needs to develop a comprehensive rural broadband strategy in partnership with key stakeholders and make funding more accessible for small providers.
DJ: What type of investment is needed with skills and training?
Harrison: Canada has a serious shortage of tech talent, which makes it imperative for both the government, the education, and the business sector to invest in raising and fostering STEM talents. To help businesses attract the talent they require, the federal government is offering hiring grants and wage subsidies to offset payroll costs for recent post-secondary STEM students and graduates.
Setting Canada up for long-term success is about talent and collaboration
Minister Navdeep Bains talks to DX Journal about Canada’s innovation economy
Canada’s $1.26-billion Strategic Innovation Fund is being used to provide investment for everything from aerial firefighting technology to satellites for the global shipping industry. The fund is just one of the ways the Trudeau government is emphasizing innovation and the new digital economy in its economic policies.
In an interview with DX Journal at CIX 2018, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, gave his perspective on the continuing efforts of the Government of Canada to support innovation across the country.
Navdeep Bains on how Canada is driving innovation
“The government really understands that we have a very special moment, that Canada is looked at as a leader when it comes to innovation,” Bains said. “Part of that success is attributed to the fact that we’re investing in people. We’re really focussed on not only developing incredible Canadian talent, but how we have access to global talent as well.”
That special moment is not only helping promote successful Canadian startups and businesses – it’s also encouraging technology companies such as Amazon and Salesforce to increase their footprint north of the U.S. border.
Canada is also getting recognition for its innovation and technology ecosystem, as evidenced by the recent announcement that Montreal will host an upcoming G7 conference on AI technology, as part of the larger Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference. The event is the largest congregation around AI and machine learning in the world.
Navdeep Bains on private and public sectors driving innovation
Bains said the focus for him and the federal government is placing a priority on people, with specific attention to diversity.
“We’re making investments in education – in lifelong learning through coding, and really leveraging immigration,” Bains said. “It’s about tech adoption. It’s about commercialization. As we invest in talent, we’re also very focused on making sure that companies have the ability to scale up.”
In order to support scaleups, Bains said the government is focused on providing access to the best technology and enabling commercialization and speed-to-market.
“That’s really the focal point,” said Bains. “How can we help companies deal with talent and people? How can we reskill and upskill Canadians? And how can really help the technology aspect? This combined with a culture of collaboration where everyone is working together is making Canada an innovation leader.”
Canadian startups and technology companies are a focal point for the Canadian’s government’s innovation approach. The federal government recently made a $25-million investment into the Creative Destruction Lab, founded at the University of Toronto, which it hopes will create as many as 22,000 jobs as well as help accelerate and support startups and AI-based companies.
Navdeep Bains on setting up long-term winning conditions for tech and innovation
Bains stressed that talent is key to future development in Canada, and cited the federal government’s recent budget as proof that the country’s resources are being directed toward the education and collaboration.
According to Bains, the government’s focus on people will have lasting importance.
“I really think that’s a key turning point for us to demonstrate success for decades to come,” he said.
Canada’s next big act is training scaleups
By Jack Derricourt & Chris Hogg
The Canadian technology landscape is booming.
Canadian companies took in $2.5 billion in funding in the first half of 2018, the strongest first half since 2000. Corporates have announced large-scale investment plans to invest in innovation and digital technology (CAE recently pegged $1 billion for the efforts) and post-secondary institutions are breaking ground to house future generations of talent (the University of Toronto is building a 14-storey building to be completed by 2021).
The Canadian technology landscape is ripening and readying for an influx and growth of more mature, internationally-focused ventures.
While scaleups make up less than five percent of Canadian companies, they create half of all new jobs in the country.
On September 26 in Toronto, Elevate ScaleUp will seek to provide helpful insights into the problems facing scaling companies. Presented by CIBC and Osler, the event features startup veterans sharing their experiences.
DX Journal spoke with Julia Kassam, Managing Director, CIBC Innovation Banking, to find out more about the next big act in Canada’s innovation space.
DX Journal: With innovation ecosystems forming across Canadian cities, what excites you the most for startups in Canada?
Julia Kassam: From coast to coast, we’ve hit our stride as a community. The Canadian startup ecosystem has never been stronger and it is launching Canada into the global spotlight. Success stories about scaling companies of all sizes, in different industries, are generating the attention of investors and aspiring entrepreneurs. We are gaining a reputation for being diverse, collaborative and competitive.
This means that Canada is no longer an occasional destination, but a critical location for international investors to regularly visit, and for global brands to establish roots and drive their own corporate growth.
DX Journal: Canadian policymakers have made strengthening the venture capital sector a priority, with the launch of Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) and Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) underway. What does that mean for startups and scaleups?
Kassam: After years of lobbying by the Canadian Venture and Private Equity Association (CVCA), the previous government took our sector’s advice and launched VCAP as an arms-length funding strategy. VCAP worked as designed; venture capital funds benefited from the capital raised and invested in several early-stage companies. The new funds that should be raised under VCCI will capitalize on that success and strengthen the sustainability of Canada’s venture capital ecosystem.
What this means for entrepreneurs is that the federal government recognizes that VCAP was an appropriate initiative, and that to fuel the innovation economy, companies need a robust venture capital ecosystem to move from startup mode to scaleup mode.
It’s a really strategic and exciting initiative because later-stage capital will help accelerate the growth for companies who need to overcome commercialization hurdles, expand into new markets and compete on a global scale.
DX Journal: Many startups struggle to scale because they don’t have the right senior talent. What is your sense of how well positioned Canada is with experienced leaders?
Kassam: Although Canada has established a reputation for developing world-class academics and innovators, we do need to attract experienced executive talent. Everything moves at an accelerated pace in a scaleup, and the business will bend and flex in ways it never has. Canada needs more leaders who know what it takes to grow globally and ensure scaleups are well-equipped to navigate and accelerate growth.
One big benefit Canada has that helps here is as a result of our proactive immigration policy – the ability for Canadian scaleups to attract skilled talent is getting easier; our country realizes that to keep pace with scaleups, concentrated efforts are needed to establish Canada as a global technology powerhouse.
DX Journal: Canada has also been able to attract tech titans such as Google to open up offices in Toronto. What role do they play in the scaleup economy?
Kassam: They serve as training ground, but also as a competitor for talent. In the best case, people learn what it takes to be part of a leading innovator while being trained by experienced executive talent at the local divisions of firms such as Cisco or Google. For scaling companies, the opportunity to pilot their innovation becomes a realistic opportunity which can flourish into a partnership that may lead to an acquisition. A big opportunity that emerges as a result of large tech companies choosing to set-up an office in Canada is an acceleration of human capital development for the ecosystem.
What we are also seeing more of is that global innovators are setting up their R&D centres in Canada. A great example this summer was Samsung announcing an AI Centre located within MaRS, led by a Toronto-based academic. Again, another opportunity for scaleups to be close to the heart of global innovation. That is huge potential waiting to be unleashed.
DX Journal: How is the Canadian startup ecosystem helping to train talent?
Kassam: Serial entrepreneurs and investors share mistakes and success stories which help shape and accelerate scaleups through collective learning. What truly makes the Canadian tech ecosystem unique is our mindset to foster entrepreneurial spirit; and a great example of how we do that is by bringing the startup community together.
Elevate, Canada’s largest tech festival and one that CIBC Innovation Banking is sponsoring, is the perfect example of creating the right information and network opportunities so that we can collectively benefit from the existing momentum in Canada’s innovation ecosystem and drive our entrepreneurial culture forward.
DX Journal: What’s the next step for the Canadian scaleup story?
Kassam: Canadian scaleups will continue to tackle the unique challenges that come with scaling a business; however, they will think in a global context earlier than ever before. Scaleups need to strategically choose the right capital partners for their growth – ones that open doors to new markets. There needs to be an emphasis on attracting top talent earlier in the growth cycle to help drive international perspectives and opportunities.
To hear more from industry leaders who have scaled real businesses (and have the scars to prove it), get a ticket for Elevate ScaleUp, happening September 26, 2018 in Toronto. Presented by CIBC Innovation Banking and Osler, the event will provide real insights from entrepreneurs and tech veterans who have spent years in the field, on everything from hiring, to financing, to distribution.
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