Over a year after launching its first Canadian accelerator in Toronto, Techstars announced that it is launching a Montreal-based AI accelerator in partnership with Real Ventures.
In a blog post, Real Ventures cites the strong AI ecosystem in Montreal as the reason behind the accelerator. The city is home to Element AI, which raised a historic $137.5 million Series A last year, and has become a key AI lab hub for companies like Samsung, Facebook, and Google’s DeepMind. Quebec is also the site of the SCALE.AI supercluster, which is receiving part of $950 million from the Canadian government towards building intelligent supply chains.
“I just have to say it’s my hometown, and I can’t wait to have a program to come visit.”
– David Brown, founder of Techstars
“It’s important that the latest developments in artificial intelligence are accessible to the next generation of entrepreneurs so that we can make a major positive change in our society,” said Yoshua Bengio, AI pioneer and scientific director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms and co-founder of Element AI. “By attracting more talented entrepreneurs to Montreal, the Techstars AI Accelerator can help ensure that the latest AI research is integrated into technologies that are accessible to everyone.”
Real Ventures was also the partner that brought the Techstars program to Toronto. Speaking with BetaKit, Real Ventures partner Sylvain Carle said that the two organizations connected during Startupfest in Montreal, and found similarities between its own FounderFuel accelerator and Techstars — though Techstars has the additional benefits of a massive network.
Carle says there has been “a perfect storm” brewing for companies and large enterprises working to apply AI into their processes.
“The AI community in Montreal has been building up for 25 years, and we’ve really started to talk about this publicly lately but connections to universities, research centres, mentors…actually several of the mentors I recruited two years ago to help with machine learning, now work at Element AI and Google,” he said. “We foresaw this, and we didn’t run an AI cohort, but we asked questions about data in our recruiting process and had AI-specific mentors that we onboarded, so the work we’ve been doing for a few years is what we’re bringing to the table.”
The startups accepted into the program are expected to be broad, including both companies that are applying AI technology to industries like FinTech and HealthTech, and companies working more directly with deep and machine learning, image recognition, and predictive analytics. Since it’s still the early days, the two organizations are still working out what the ideal workshopping and mentorship scenario for AI companies will look like. If everything runs smoothly, Carle says the intent is to run the program from Montreal, but get more international talent and partners involved.
“How do we put the AI sauce in the Techstars recipe is something we’ll co-develop with them. One approach we do intend to take is partnering with different organizations, so specific aspects of this project is international skills,” he said.
“Canada, for foreign entrepreneurs, feels like a welcoming place.”
When BetaKit spoke with Techstars founder David Brown last year, he said that a Canadian Techstars location would serve as a key location for international applicants that may be affected by changing US immigration policy. Brown indicated that this could still be the case today.
“I think that immigration policy, although the dust has settled a bit, there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty and nobody really knows if another shoe’s going to drop. So Canada, for foreign entrepreneurs, feels like a welcoming place.”
The hope is that as Canada’s Techstars alumni program grows, there is potential to build more programming across the country, Brown said. While Real Ventures lauds Techstars’ deep international network, Brown said the same for the Real Ventures team, which is also one of the co-founders of Element AI.
“In general, Real Ventures has a lot of AI context in Montreal, and actually a lot of context in Montreal period,” he said. “So for us, to sort of tap into their deep network, not to the exclusion of everyone else of course, but having a foot on the ground is always a good thing.”
The accelerator is looking for other corporate partners like Colliers — which is part of its real estate tech focused accelerator in Toronto — to provide mentorship and perspective for its member startups; it’s already working with Montreal’s Institute For Data Valorization (IVADO) and CDL-Montreal on the AI accelerator.
As Techstars continues to look at other opportunities for Canadian expansion, Brown, a Montreal native, says he’s excited to finally have a base in the city. “I just have to say it’s my hometown, and I can’t wait to have a program to come visit.”
The program kicks off in September 2018 and will conclude with Demo Day in December during NIPS 2018 in Montreal. Applications are open until May 13, 2018.