By: JAMES TEMPERTON
Montreal is one of the world’s leading centres for artificial intelligence research – and that reputation is now having a big impact on its startup community.
According to PwC Canada, the city raised more venture capital money than any other in the country in 2017, with US$800 million (£616m) invested across 63 major deals. That’s still small fry compared to rival startup cities
in the US and across Europe, but Montreal is growing fast.
Attracted by its reputation for ground breaking AI research, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have invested heavily in the city’s academic and entrepreneurial communities in recent years. The Canadian government has also pledged more than $200 million (£118m) of funding to further boost Montreal’s AI research. According to Université de Montréal professor Yoshua Bengio, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on deep learning, the city is well on its way to becoming “a mini Silicon Valley”.
And with AI now at the centre of so much technological development, Montreal has found itself in an enviable position. “The private sector is here, the academic sector is here and so is the government,” says Damien Silès, executive director of the Quartier de l’innovation, an experimental city laboratory that operates in downtown Montreal. “We share the responsibility and that’s why it’s working; that’s why it’s a strength.”
As Quebec’s biggest city and with 59 per cent of its population fluent in both French and English, Montreal stands out among its North American rivals. “We’re speaking French with joie de vivre but we’re acting North American,” says Silès. “But it’s also the food, the Latin way of life, the Latin way to approach people – it’s totally different.”
The low cost of real estate in Montreal has also created a more close-knit community in which locals can afford to live, work and socialise downtown. That’s good news for the city’s 2,500 startups, which occupy the same city blocks as major corporate headquarters and fellow residents. “Montreal is one
of those great cities that’s large enough to be a metropolis but small enough that it’s not cut-throat,” says Philippe Telio, founder of Montreal Startupfest, a summer festival that has grown from a few hundred attendees in 2011 to more than 7,000 in July 2018. “There’s now a serious critical mass of innovators and thinkers,” he adds.
The only thing holding Montreal back, according to Telio, is a breakout success story. “Like any community we’re starting to see some great successes, but like any great ecosystem we need a couple of billion-dollar companies to showcase.” If its AI scene continues to flourish, Montreal surely won’t be waiting much longer.
A STARTUP GUIDE TO MONTREAL
WHERE TO EATRestaurant Île Flottante, 174-176 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest. Enjoy an exquisite, seasonal and locally sourced tasting menuWHERE TO STAYAuberge du Vieux-Port, 97 Rue de la Commune Est. Traditional French class with views of the Saint Lawrence RiverWHAT TO DOMont Royal. Take a morning climb up Montreal’s eponymous hill and see the city from a different perspective
AI startup Automat develops conversational marketing bots for brands. Its aim? To help companies communicate with customers at scale by automating conversations. Its work for L’Oréal, called Beauty Gifter, used a Facebook Messenger chatbot to learn what products people liked and recommend them similar items within a chat interface. Automat has also worked with Cover Girl and Sephora on similar projects. Early-stage investment has come from Slack and Comcast Ventures.
Investment raised: $10.9m
Founder: Andy Mauro
Fintech app Mylo connects to its customers’ bank accounts and rounds up their purchases to the nearest dollar so it can invest the spare change. Similar to London’s Moneybox and California-based Acorns, Mylo is the only round-up-and-save app available in Canada, with investments handled by an asset management firm. The app has more than 150,000 customers and raised $1.9 million in a seed round led by Desjardins Capital in January 2018.
Investment raised: $3.3m
Founders: Philip Barrar
Telemedicine startup Dialogue works with companies to offer employees access to on-demand healthcare. The service includes video and text consultations, referrals and a booking system for in-person visits and the ability to renew prescriptions online. It works with around 150 employers and raised $12 million in a February 2018 Series A round led by White Star Capital.
Investment raised: $16m
Founders: Alexis Smirnov, Anna Chif, Cherif Habib
Computer-vision startup wrnch uses deep learning to convert human motion from 2D video into detailed 3D motion data. Its custom-built software can pull video from smartphone and tablet cameras in real time, and track up to 63 body parts. Its proof-of-concept bodySLAM system was among the breakthrough technologies demoed at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference in May 2017.
Investment raised: $1.8m
Founder: Paul Kruszewski
With voice becoming one of the main ways we interact with machines, having a strong accent could be a hindrance when communicating with AI. To address this, Fluent.ai has developed a range of systems to help companies better understand what people are saying. Its AI engine learns from context and behaviour as well as speech, rather than simply turning speech data into words.
Investment raised: $4m
Founder: Vikrant Tomar
This deep-learning organisation connects Montreal’s research community with companies around the world to scale new products and services. Think of it as an AI shop: if a business doesn’t have AI expertise it can buy it in. Seed funding was provided by Microsoft Ventures, and it raised $102 million in a Series A round led by Data Collective in June 2017.
Investment raised: $102m
Founders: Jean-Francois Gagné, Yoshua Bengio, Nicolas Chapados
Image Credits: Wired
Content Credits: Wired