The University of Alberta has launched a new donor-backed innovation fund to invest in local startups, and has announced artificial intelligence (AI)-firm RL Core Technologies as the fund’s first investment.
The university, which hopes to raise $50 million for the fund in the next five years through donor support, said in a statement that the fund will focus on “areas of outstanding research strength at the University of Alberta,” including AI, health, energy, and agriculture as part of the university’s plan to increase its research impact over the next decade.
A University of Alberta spokesperson said the fund launched with just shy of $5 million, including a $500,000 commitment from the province as announced at the launch event by Alberta’s minister of technology and innovation, Nate Glubbish.
The fund will provide an online community platform for its startups to access information, resources, and share ideas.
“The University of Alberta’s Innovation Fund will attract more talent and directly contribute to Alberta’s thriving tech and innovation ecosystem, validating our growing reputation as Canada’s preferred destination for innovation,” Glubbish said.
The University of Alberta has a long history with the province’s tech sector, particularly its AI sector. The Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) was launched from the university in 2002 through a joint effort with the province to support research in AI and machine learning. Now, Amii is one of Canada’s three centres of AI excellence under the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy.
The University of Alberta has also spawned some notable Canadian tech startups, such as healthtech company DrugBank, a University of Alberta spinout that uses AI to make sense of data in medicine, closed a $9-million seed round last year.
The University of Alberta said the new fund will run as an independent entity with its own board, headed by CEO Sheetal Mehta Walsh, a University of Alberta alumni and former director of venture capital relations at Microsoft. The board will conduct due diligence and recommend startups to the University of Alberta that benefit Albertans and provide returns on investment, which the university plans to reinvest to future innovations.
A university spokesperson said the fund is aiming to invest in five to 10 startups next year, with its selected startups eligible to receive up to $250,000.
Walsh said companies selected for investment will also receive access to strategic networks, initial and follow up financial support, and opportunities to enter global markets. Selected startups can also access in-person and online education sessions on business topics such as entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
The fund will also provide an online community platform for its startups to access information, resources, and share ideas, according to the university.
“This helps establish a culture of mentorship and an entrepreneurial mindset across disciplines, ensuring that students gain the skills and connections needed to become our next generation of entrepreneurs,” Walsh said.
Co-founded by University of Alberta researcher and CEO Martha White, RL Core Technologies is the first company to be backed by the new innovation fund with a $100,000 direct investment. A university spokesperson said that RL Core also secured an additional $685,000 from Flying Fish Partners with help from the fund’s team.
The Edmonton-based company uses a data-driven AI approach called reinforcement learning (RL) to improve the efficiency and performance of industrial control systems.
The company said the machine-learning technique adapts in real time to deliver better functioning control parameters than ones manually set by engineers.
The university said RL is currently being used to reduce energy use in drinking water treatment, and the company plans to eventually expand its AI approach to other applications, such as smart heating and cooling systems.
“The potential applications of the technology are so exciting,” said Adam White, Martha’s husband and co-lead at the university’s Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Lab. “We envision a scenario where we could plug into control systems across industries, where there is already some level of automation. That could have a huge impact.”
Martha said that along with the expert business development advice and financial support, the networking opportunities offered through the fund will be especially valuable to RL Core.
UPDATE (10/23/23): This story was updated to note additional information shared by a University of Alberta spokesperson.
Feature image courtesy University of Alberta.