- Alberta can benefit from its strong educational institutions providing talented engineers and researchers to the AI space.
- There is strong potential for the commercialization of AI for healthcare applications in Alberta.
- Government entities in Alberta and Canada can become the perfect sandbox for testing and deploying AI-driven solutions.
Industry, government and academia have to be at the same table to help Alberta and Canada innovate on AI and adopt AI solutions. Canada has a unique opportunity to become a world leader in responsible AI, but that will only come to fruition with collaboration.
Please introduce yourselves and the company you co-founded.
Nicole: My name is Nicole Janssen, co-founder and co-CEO at AltaML. Joining me is Cory Janssen, also co-founder and co-CEO at AltaML.
AltaML is what we call an applied AI studio and we focus on building applications that have machine learning (ML) at the core. We bring industry data and demand expertise together with a startup’s agility and machine learning expertise so that we can build those applications.
How would you describe Alberta’s AI ecosystem?
Cory: The glass-half-full answer would be that Alberta is the hidden gem of Canada’s AI ecosystem. We may be a little bit of a late bloomer, if you look at things with a more pessimistic eye. There is more potential in Alberta than there is anywhere else. Most people in Canada do not even realize that the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy actually has three legs to its stool—it is not just Toronto and Montreal—it also includes our region out west, headquartered in Edmonton around the University of Alberta (U of A) and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii).
“Alberta has the academic excellence that is providing machine learning engineers to industry and we are starting to see that market take off.”
There is more opportunity here than almost anywhere else because Alberta has the academic excellence that is providing machine learning engineers to industry and we are starting to see that market take off. We are starting to see big capital raises here. Capital has always been the big barrier but now we are seeing growth at both the seed level and at a larger scale. There is more opportunity here than anywhere else in Canada.
What do you identify as the key industries in Alberta that are set to be transformed by AI?
Cory: Alberta is known for its energy industry and so there is a ton of data in that space. What a lot of people do not fully recognize is how the effort to adopt AI technologies in Alberta is built around environmental, social and governance goals as well as the energy transition.
In addition, there is a lack of understanding of the amount of opportunity within the industrial AI space. It encompasses things that are slightly different but adjacent to energy. Industrial processes make up the stuff that we actually live on, whether that is mining or the lumber industry.
We just started a joint venture in that space with our partners Spartan Controls and we are more excited about industrial AI than almost any other industry, with one exception: health. Many people do not realize that Alberta has only one health authority so we should be the perfect sandbox for the commercialization of AI for health tech applications. There is a lot happening here with Nobel Prize winners and amazing researchers at the U of A bringing the pieces together. We are salivating over that opportunity that will be available over the next few years.
“AI is a horizontal enabler for traditional industries.”
Nicole: The other thing that our team gets really excited about are impactful use cases. AI is a horizontal enabler for traditional industries. It can help any industry, our team gets particularly jazzed about health, safety and ESG, all of which are areas where you feel like you are really improving society.
What needs to be done to make Alberta and Canada more globally competitive in AI?
Nicole: Education is key and we are chipping away at that one step at a time, but there is more that can be done there. Alberta is competitive on the world stage in terms of academia and research in AI, attracting some of the best talent globally to the province. We cannot squander that, though. Investments were made over decades to get us to this point, attracting the right researchers and students. If we do not continue to put investment into that, we will lose that. Other countries are putting investments into AI at great speed, so Canada will need to hurry up. We cannot keep waiting and thinking that this great asset we have will be permanent.
“Industry and government in Alberta and Canada need to get up to the same level as academia.”
Industry and government in Alberta and Canada need to get up to the same level as academia. They are not there yet. We are not on the world stage in those areas. There is an opportunity for government to really demonstrate their innovative thinking and become leaders. Let some of that new technology be tested in their environment. It might just be testing for now but there is a wealth of opportunity and a ton of use cases for AI within government. If the government can do it, then industry will recognize that they can do it too.
Cory: In many instances, we have seen more risk-taking sometimes in government than outside. It is a stereotype that government does not take risks. In the private sector, you need to have returns by a certain time so it is tougher to take risks on AI. We have had some really great projects with government locally, one involving predicting wildfires and projects involving the optimization of equipment that have gone really well and as good as anything in the private sector.
“Many Canadian companies think that the epitome of success is to sell to a US firm, but then all of the wealth, jobs and IP leave Canada.”
Nicole: Another thing needed for us to compete on the world stage is we need to get some swagger. Many Canadian companies think that the epitome of success is to sell to a US firm, but then all of the wealth, jobs and IP leave Canada. Cory sold Investopedia many years ago to a US company and we know now, after watching their success, that we could have done that too even though we did not believe so at the time. Canadian entrepreneurs need to see that we do have the opportunity in Canada to make large companies and be successful.
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What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs in Alberta or Canada?
Cory: Start now. If you have an idea, do not hold back. The way you start is by actually talking to customers and making sales. There are lots of good programs and supports, but do not ask your parents for feedback as they will always tell you that your ideas are good. When it comes down to it, there is nothing quite like pitching an idea to someone and having them open up their chequebook.
The second piece of advice is do not sell your business. Once you are on that rollercoaster, just keep going. Understand that even if you think you will never be able to build your business, you should not let someone else take it. Look at Shopify and take some inspiration from them. I am proud as a Canadian and I have no connection whatsoever to Shopify but I love that they are Canadian. The entrepreneur ecosystem should be focusing on how we can build 10 more Shopifys.
What is unique about Alberta’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Cory: Alberta has always been a little bit of an outsider and part of the reason is due to our agricultural roots, which have given us a little bit of that maverick spark. We are always looking in and that results in more of an entrepreneurial mindset.
“The amazing networks of trust that were developed in the Alberta energy industry are starting to now come into tech.”
The amazing networks of trust that were developed in the Alberta energy industry are starting to now come into tech. There are also things like Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a great Canadian program that has now come here for the last few years. Things like that bring communities together to bridge the gap between older traditional industries and the newer ones. We should keep a little bit of our maverick mentality as that will serve us well.
Nicole: The Alberta entrepreneurial ecosystem is very supportive, with entrepreneurs trying to help boost other entrepreneurs. The network within Alberta is large enough to be impactful but small enough to really have a strong network. There will not be a business event where you will not know anyone. That allows support to grow quickly. One of Alberta’s key advantages is that we are not the big guy but we are big enough to be impactful.
Who and what would you pitch to make Alberta and Canada world leaders in AI?
Nicole: The who is everyone: industry, government and academia have to be at the same table. You cannot talk to them one at a time; you have to do them together. Canada has talent, research and a blossoming AI industry widely dispersed across the country. Instead of pitting provinces against each other, let us use AI to establish a common goal to aspire to. We have the ability and opportunity to be the leader in responsible AI globally. All the other big players cannot claim that responsible piece; that piece is ours and we need to grab a hold of it.