Despite COVID-19, Ontario AI ecosystem continues growth trajectory, report finds

The City of Toronto, from the water

The Vector Institute’s second annual snapshot of Ontario’s artificial intelligence (AI) sector has found that despite the pandemic, the province’s AI ecosystem has continued to grow over the past year.

Ontario performed well during 2020-2021 on a number of key metrics. According to the report produced by Vector and Deloitte, the sector saw an increase in venture capital (VC) investment, research and development (R&D) spending, and the number of jobs created compared to the previous year.

The 2020-21 report focuses on the period of April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021.

7,253 AI jobs were created in Ontario over the last year, almost double the amount in 2019-2020.

Ontario, which has a large and growing AI ecosystem, is home to some of Canada’s biggest AI hubs in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, as well some of the country’s biggest AI startup success stories like Tenstorrent, Deep Genomics, and Ada.

“Ontario’s AI ecosystem responded nimbly and effectively to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to grow in size and strength,” states Vector’s Ontario AI Snapshot, which aims to assess the health of the province’s AI ecosystem by tracking metrics like AI job creation and retention, investment, application, and commercialization.

The Vector Institute is an independent not-for-profit organization dedicated to AI research. The Toronto-based hub was launched in 2017 with support from the Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, and industry supporters in partnership with the University of Toronto and other institutions.

According to Vector’s latest report, $2.16 billion in VC investment flowed into the Ontario AI ecosystem last year, an increase of $254 million compared to 2019-2020. Vector also identified 212 different corporate investors that made direct investments into Ontario-based AI firms between April 2020 and March 2021, up from the previous report’s total of 166.

Since March, Ontario has seen a number of major, $100 million-plus AI company funding rounds, including Untether AI, Gatik, and Waabi.

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Moreover, the report estimates that median AI R&D spending also grew last year, rising by a factor of 5.5 to 6.3 since 2019-2020.

Perhaps most significantly, an estimated 7,253 AI jobs were created in Ontario last year, almost double the number of jobs created in 2019-2020.

Following an initial dip between April and August 2020, AI hiring rebounded later in the year. Of these jobs, 2,922 were held by a highly-qualified professional who graduated from an AI-related program, with salaries greater than $70,000 per year.

At the same time, total AI patent filings, an indicator of commercialization trends, were down, as Ontario AI researchers filed 41 AI-related patents compared to 55 during 2019-2020.

Meanwhile, AI company creation rose slightly, as 35 new AI companies were established in Ontario between April 2020 and March 2021, up from 32 the year before. Thirteen AI companies also relocated to the province, up from 12 the previous year.

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Fifty-seven percent of Ontario companies surveyed have either commercialized AI products or services, or use AI to deliver core products and services; while just over half of the 155 executives asked reported AI plays a strategically important role in achieving business objectives, or that their company has implemented formal AI strategy across its business.

Ontario is an important part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy. This strategy, which was created as part of the 2017 federal budget with a $125 million investment, aims to promote collaboration between four of the country’s largest AI hubs, including Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Montreal, and Edmonton

As part of this plan, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) appointed approximately 50 Canada CIFAR Chairs in AI at three of the country’s AI institutes, including the Vector Institute, MILA in Montreal, and Amii in Edmonton.

In November, the three AI hubs teamed up (the first such official collaboration between the three organizations) to help launch a new national AI and digital health initiative.

Feature image by Sahil via Pexels

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling in-depth Canadian tech stories and breaking news. His coverage is more complete than his moustache.

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