Outside Toronto: The Unsung Canadian Cities Leading AI Innovation


Robin Grosset, Chief Technical Officer at MindBridge Ai, spoke about the future of AI at SAAS NORTH in Ottawa earlier this week. Here’s a detailed look at his thoughts on AI innovation in Canada.

For the past several years, Toronto has been considered the tech and AI giant of Canada. Having been proclaimed Silicon Valley North, the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is positioned as the frontman in the AI race. What’s more, the corridor covers 112 km and is thus the second largest tech region in North America. The city’s reputation is not unfounded. Between 2012 and 2017, Toronto saw the creation of 82,100 jobs in tech — surpassing Silicon Valley’s job creation pace in the same time span by 4,270.

While Toronto deserves its place at number one when it comes to Canadian innovation, the rest of the country has been gaining ground in the field of AI research and development. Cities such as Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa are quietly becoming major hubs of AI innovation.

Montreal: Decades Ahead of the AI Development

Montreal is not a newcomer to AI development and innovation. In fact, the city has been a backbone in the industry since the early days of Yoshua Bengio, who is considered one of the pioneers of neural networks and deep learning in the 1980s. In 2016, Bengio founded Element.AI in Montreal. Its 2017 series A funding round raised $137 million, the largest in history for an AI startup.

Montreal is not a newcomer to AI development and innovation. These are a few of the many factors contributing to Montreal’s lead in the AI race.

Yet, Element.AI is just one of Bengio’s projects. He is currently developing the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms (MILA), which connects researchers from two of the biggest universities in the city: The University of Montreal and McGill University. The idea behind MILA is to create a community for professionals who wish to push the envelope for AI innovation.

While Bengio has been steadily developing the AI field in Montreal, other major players have set their sights on developing AI in the City of Saints. Last year, Facebook announced that it was expanding its AI offices to Montreal in order to gain access to the talent coming out of the city. Google has already set up its Montreal machine learning office, and the deep learning startup Maluuba was acquired by Microsoft just two years ago. These are a few of the many factors contributing to Montreal’s lead in the AI race.

Edmonton as an Innovation Center

While quietly flying under the radar for the past couple of years, the city of Edmonton is finally spreading its wings and revealing the AI talent it contains.

In 2017, Google’s AI company DeepMind opened its first international office in Edmonton in collaboration with the University of Alberta. According to the company, it plans to contribute academically through teaching and research. Another goal is to continue to support AI programs in the University, which is considered an AI world leader.

Another major player which has gained more interest in AI research is the Royal Bank of Canada. The bank established its Edmonton office in 2017, named Borealis.AI. What’s more, to support the program, RBC later hired U.S. professor Matthew E. Taylor to lead and expand the team.

There is also Richard Sutton, one of the leaders putting Edmonton on the AI innovation map. As a computer science professor at the University of Alberta, he leads the Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence research program (RLAI), which focuses on reinforcement-learning methods to solve optimal-control problems. All in all, professionals in Edmonton are proud to see new economic activities besides its well-known oil industry.


AI Initiatives in Vancouver

Vancouver’s AI ecosystem has recently been described as “exploding” by the Financial Post. This is in large part due to more funding and university research, along with an increase in incubators and accelerators. Until recently, Vancouver’s main issue was retaining talent, as professionals easily made the jump south of the border to Silicon Valley.

Vancouver’s AI ecosystem has recently been described as “exploding.”

Recently, global e-commerce giant Amazon announced that it was opening new offices in downtown Vancouver, with plans to hire 3,000 employees in fields including cloud computing and machine learning. This new office is an addition to its first development center focused on AWS EC2, which opened in 2013.

Other AI players in Vancouver include Mobify, Sanctuary.AI, and Finn.ai, which raised $14 million in its Series A funding round. Out of the University of British Columbia, professors Holger Hoos, Kevin Leyton-Brown and Alan Mackworth also participated in AI development research by analyzing its dangers through the AI index program.

Ottawa Takes Major Steps Forward

Typically, you need educated individuals to help build an AI-centric economy. There is a world shortage of people who can understand and build AI technology. This is where Ottawa comes in, with 31.5 percent of its population holding a university degree, making it the most educated city in Canada. What’s more, per capita Ottawa has more engineers, scientists and PhDs than any other Canadian city. It contains some 1,700 tech companies which employ around 68,000 people, and in the past five years, Ottawa has raised more money on public markets than the rest of the cities in the country combined.

AI companies run on data, and Ottawa has a history of building world class data-driven organizations like Cognos (acquired by IBM). The new breed of startups growing in Ottawa are leveraging this AI and analytics skillset. Interset, for example, is an Ottawa-based company which uses AI to address cybersecurity issues. Other examples include Zighra, Stratelogics, and BluWave-ai. Other AI startups will start to see Ottawa’s potential as more success stories emerge from the city.

In order to assess the true AI power and potential of Canada, it’s important to start shedding light on other cities apart from Toronto which are on their way up. The long-feared AI winter is over, and what has come out of this spring is a bevy of AI startups and world leaders pushing for innovation in Canada. We can expect to see these cities grow and become international players in the global AI race.


Robin Grosset

Robin Grosset is the Chief Technical Officer at MindBridge Ai.

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