- The ubiquity of academic institutions and talent in Montreal makes it a top location to source research and talent.
- Montreal has a densely populated ecosystem of stakeholders from accelerators to venture firms, allowing startups to thrive with ample support.
- There is a wealth of government-supported and privately run programs aimed at the multi-disciplinary training of the next generation of talent in Montreal.
Every business and innovation ecosystem requires top-notch talent to fuel their success. Montreal is able to provide key talent from academic institutions and research backgrounds, which, when coupled with innovative entrepreneurial talent, has helped produce leading organizations in the AI for health sector.
What are Montreal’s top competitive advantages when it comes to attracting FDI in the life sciences sector?
There are multiple factors here. First and foremost, we have a very large density of post-secondary technical talent in Montreal. I have to fact check this but it is among the largest in North America. This alone makes Montreal a really great place to build emerging technology companies and it is probably an indirect driver of foreign direct investment (FDI). We have this emerging dominance in machine learning anchored largely by the presence of Mila, Quebec’s artificial intelligence (AI) institute, and folks like Yoshua Bengio who are pioneers in this space. Montreal has a long history of life sciences excellence, on the academic side with groups like the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) at the University of Montreal and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, but also on the industry side dating back to the pharmaceutical companies that use to run research and development (R&D) teams out of Montreal. These folks are sources of talent for the next generations of companies in Montreal and the associated FDI that comes with that.
“Montreal has a long history of life sciences excellence.”
People come first and people drive everything else that is built around that, including infrastructure, investment, and lab space. If you start with the people, it becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop.
Who are some of the key players in the Montreal AI ecosystem?
Coming back to the people, in Montreal we have this critical mass of not only students but also academic scientists working across all the areas of deep learning. This is anchored by Mila and the pioneering work done in deep learning by Professor Yoshua Bengio. Yoshua himself is a talent magnet for attracting the best students and the best professors, who then attract more top talent, and this really does become a self-fulfilling feedback loop. We are seeing evidence of this across our space here in Montreal.
“Early-stage companies that have benefitted from the Montreal ecosystem are now building really exciting solutions in the intersection of machine learning and life sciences.”
As far as other players go, across the early stage startup ecosystem, we have accelerators anchored by groups like FounderFuel, the Techstars Montréal AI Accelerator, which is bringing in a lot of international companies, and Centech, who have done really great work in this space. We also have early stage investment capital available through groups like Real Ventures, Panache Ventures, and Brightspark Ventures. When you take all of this together, what we are seeing is that it is helping to spur the creation of a growing number of early stage technology companies that are building on advances in machine learning applied to the life sciences. We have companies like Eli Health from the fertility and contraception space, nplex Biosciences in proteomics, Pathway Medical for point-of-care solutions, and Perceiv AI for clinical trial optimizations. Early stage companies that have benefitted from the Montreal ecosystem are now building really exciting solutions in the intersection of machine learning and life sciences.
What is AI-enabled drug design and why is it important for the future economy?
AI-enabled drug design is the use of AI and machine learning technologies to design more effective drugs for patients faster and cheaper than otherwise possible. Historically, it has been really hard and expensive to develop a new drug. It takes on average about 10 to 15 years and somewhere around $2 billion to bring a new drug to market. The COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently living through highlights the importance of accelerating these timelines for patients in need. AI is one of the tools we have available to us to accelerate drug development.
“By 2030, every new drug will be designed with machine learning.”
What we are doing with AI-enabled drug design is building the technology to solve this problem so that one day it might become possible. By 2030, every new drug will be designed with machine learning. What we are doing in Valence Discovery is building the infrastructure to support this shift, to empower our partners in pharmaceutical and biotech companies to bring better medicines to patients faster. That is what AI-enabled drug design is all about.
How can Montreal further attract, train and retain top talent for AI applications in the health sector?
As far as training goes, we have great initiatives in Montreal like District 3’s AI in Genomics program. Further, the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO) and Mila run a deep learning summer school with AI for Good initiatives. Montreal has all kinds of programs aimed at training the next generation of multidisciplinary talent across these different fields. We are also seeing increasing collaboration between computer scientists, AI researchers and their counterparts in the life sciences here in Montreal. For example, we have folks at Mila working with teams at the Montreal Neurological Institute and IRIC on patient-centric applications of machine learning. This is hugely important.
Is Montreal seeing greater interest from foreign players in the AI for health sector?
The short answer is yes. If we take Valence Discovery as an example, almost all our current partners, except for one, are international. International partners recognize the emerging position Montreal has as a world leader in machine learning and AI. Again, this is largely anchored by Mila and the pioneering work of Yoshua Bengio and many of his really talented colleagues. Valence Discovery has seen international pharmaceutical companies that considered partnerships with AI startups in the UK, Boston, and the Bay Area, but ended up working with us in Montreal due to the depth and breadth of our machine learning team in relation to that of other companies in the market. This is a function of us being headquartered at Mila and being able to draw from this amazing local talent pool, as well as the affiliation we have with some of the top AI researchers in the world.
Do you see the AI for health sector as one of Canada’s main economic development opportunities in the years to come?
Yes, absolutely; it has to be. The AI and health sector should be a priority for Canada. When you look at the science being done not just in Montreal but across the entire country at research-driven universities and institutes, it is top tier. It is competitive with the best in the world and we just need to take that next step and focus on commercialization, the critical mass of capital and talent, incentives to commercialize, and infrastructure. All of these components tie into each other to allow us to build globally-competitive companies out of Canada.
How would you describe the ease of doing business in Montreal and how receptive is the business community to new players?
In general, we have an incredibly welcoming community here in Montreal. Montreal is making a focused effort to attract international talent built around our growing position in machine learning. Valence Discovery feels incredibly fortunate to be doing business here in Montreal. We have not noticed any major barriers to doing business. These days, business is done globally. We intend very much to keep our machine learning group headquartered in Montreal because we truly believe that we have some of the best talent in the world available to us locally and a lot of the pieces have come together to allow us to build a globally-competitive company out of Montreal.
“Montreal is making a focused effort to attract international talent built around our growing position in machine learning.”
Montreal is an amazing place to live. Anyone who spends any amount of time here, particularly in the spring and summer, falls in love with the city. That is certainly a big part of the recruiting pitch for us: enjoy cross-country skiing in the winter and live in a beautiful city in the spring and summer. We certainly love Montreal and it has been a great place to build the company.