Roche launching national AI, digital health initiative alongside Amii, Mila, Vector Institute

Hoffmann-La Roche Limited (Roche Canada), a Swiss multinational healthcare company, is set to announce on Wednesday the launch of Roche AI Centre of Excellence (CoE), an initiative meant to advance digital transformation in health.

The program is bringing together Canada’s national artificial intelligence institutes, Amii, Mila, and the Vector Institute. This marks the first such official collaboration on a national level between the three organizations.

“This partnership is a first of its kind, leveraging the investments made through the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy in our three national AI Institutes.”
 

“Roche’s establishment of a new AI Centre of Excellence in Canada is a great testament to the power of collaboration,” said Elissa Strome, executive director of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy for CIFAR.

“This partnership is a first of its kind, leveraging the investments made through the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy in our three national AI Institutes to deliver a collaboration that will be greater than the sum of its parts and will help advance AI for health research and innovation for Canada,” she added.

The Canadian government established its national AI strategy in 2017, providing $125 million towards the goal of establishing Canada as a world-leading destination for AI talent and companies. The founding of Montreal-based Mila, Edmonton’s Amii, and Toronto-based Vector all predate the Pan-Canadian AI strategy, though the government officially denoted the three organizations Canada’s national AI institutes.

“Emerging and innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) are crucial to growing a competitive, knowledge-based economy, and impact a broad range of industries including manufacturing, healthcare, digital industries, agriculture, and clean technology,” Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains, said in a statement to BetaKit. “The Pan-Canadian AI Strategy aims to strengthen and build on Canada’s leadership position in AI, and collaborations like the new AI in Health Centre of Excellence are an important step in that direction.”

Yoshua Bengio, founder and scientific director at Mila and one of Canada’s ‘godfathers of AI,’ stated that the CoE “further solidifies Canada’s interdisciplinary culture.” Fellow ‘godfathers of AI,’ Richard Sutton (Amii) and Geoffrey Hinton (Vector) echoed similar sentiments.

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“Artificial intelligence has immense potential to transform the way we think about healthcare delivery in Canada,” Sutton said. “This partnership between Roche and the institutes of the CIFAR Pan-Canadian AI Strategy will enable Amii and our Pan-Canadian partners to join our expertise in machine learning with Roche’s industry-leading expertise in health and solidify Canada’s leadership in the intersection of AI and life sciences.”

While called a centre of excellence, Roche Canada is not establishing a physical centre as part of the initiative. Rather, the initiative will see the organizations working together to develop and implement public and private partnerships, as well as IT infrastructure to accelerate the development, application and access of AI solutions. It will allow healthcare system stakeholders, and potentially startups, to identify projects that will then be managed and coordinated by Roche and executed by Roche and the three AI institutes.

Roche Canada is set to invest both cash and in-kind resources in CoE, though would not provide details on the size of the investment. Roche Canada is also notably an industry sponsor of the Vector Institue. Garth Gibson, CEO of Vector, indicated to BetaKit that Roche is looking to provide sponsorship to each of the three organizations as part of the initiative.

In a joint statement, Roche Canada leads argued that the healthcare company is uniquely positioned to develop innovations “that bring significant value” to the healthcare system.

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Roche Canada is a global healthcare company, established in 1931, that focuses on pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. It touts itself as the world’s largest biotech company and provides medicines in the areas of oncology, immunology, infectious diseases, ophthalmology and diseases of the central nervous system. It also works on in vitro diagnostics and tissue-based cancer diagnostics, as well as diabetes management.

The CoE originated out of an existing partnership program that Roche Canada created in April. Dubbed the Roche Data Science Coalition (RDSC), Roche Canada created a multi-industry coalition that included Amii, doc.ai, NVIDIA, Self Care Catalysts, ThinkData Works, and the Vector Institute. The goal of RDSC was to tackle challenges presented by COVID-19.

According to Roche Canada, the RDSC has developed over 100 digital solutions and insights including AI models, advanced analytics, virtual dashboards, market reports since its formation. The CoE is set to use the RDSC’s framework for cross-sector collaborations in order to drive digital transformation to Canada’s healthcare system.

While Canada is known for its universal healthcare system, the country has historically been slow to adopt healthtech innovation. Its healthcare systems have been known to have disparate regulations, lengthy procurement processes, and poor access to funding. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has changed that. Since the onset of the pandemic, federal and provincial governments have been more open to digital transformation in the sector.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing gaps in our healthcare system, while showing the immense value the artificial intelligence and life sciences sectors bring,” Fanny Sie, Roche Canada’s strategic healthcare partner of AI and digital health said in a statement to BetaKit.

“We saw an opportunity to leverage the established framework for cross-sector collaboration, and create the AI CoE as the sustainable, scalable model of the RDSC to accelerate innovation and deliver AI health solutions,” she added.

“This is an exciting time for AI and healthcare,” echoed Bengio. “Recent efforts at Mila, Amii and the Vector Institute in light of the COVID-19 pandemic re-emphasize the collective commitment across our scientific community to collaborate and share information in order to drive AI advances forward with tangible societal benefits.”

UPDATE 18/11/2020: This article previously misspelled the name of Roche Canada’s strategic partner of AI and digital health. This has been updated with correct spelling.

Meagan Simpson

Meagan Simpson

Meagan is the Associate Editor for BetaKit. A tech writer that is super proud to showcase the Canadian tech scene. Background in almost every type of journalism from sports to politics. Podcast and Harry Potter nerd, photographer and crazy cat lady.