Yoshua Bengio and friends launch ‘AI startup factory’


Longtime Montreal artificial intelligence thinkers Jean-François Gagné, Nicolas Chapados and Yoshua Bengio are founding a new incubation-style “AI startup factory” in an attempt to retain the city’s AI talent and provide young companies a spark.

The new Element AI will partner up with larger corporations and veteran researchers in the city to enable local entrepreneurs to build products that solve AI-related needs.  The new incubator will bring together these folks while emphasizing an “AI-First” strategy.

“There’s a war for talent going on and most companies are being out-gunned by the tech giants,” said the group’s CEO, Jean-Francois Gagne. “Our mission is to bring entrepreneurs and academics together and help them incubate advanced AI-First solutions.”

“We’re going to enable a lot people to tackle problems that otherwise would be impossible for them to think about,” Gagne added.

Most impressively, Element.AI will call among its founders one of the “godfathers” of modern AI research in Dr. Yoshua Bengio.

Bengio was the subject of feature story on Montreal AI and machine learning leaders earlier this year, which included comment from Gagne. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from McGill University and did postdoc studies at M.I.T. and AT&T Bell Labs. Bengio authored two books and more than 300 publications, and is one of the three pioneers of deep learning, arguably the most impactful advance in Machine Learning.

READ ALSO: Will braindrain be the continued fate of Montreal’s Machine Learning community?

Gagne, meanwhile, is a serial entrepreneur who founded and successfully exited two companies in AI and Operations Research. Chapados cofounded ApSTAT Technologies in 2001, a machine learning technology transfer firm, as well as, two spin-off companies: Imagia, to provide AI-based actionable predictive oncology analytics atop medical imaging data, and Chapados Couture Capital, a quantitative asset manager.

There has never been any question as to whether Montreal can produce world-class AI talent and research facilities. Gagne called Montreal a strong community with more locally-educated and qualified people in Machine Learning or operational research than anywhere else in North America.  He referenced the fact that the world-class Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) was hosted in Montreal in 2014 and 2015, and will return in 2018. Meanwhile, Bengio’s lab, at over 75 students, is “unheard of” in terms of scale for that type of lab.

The problem has been keeping them.

“We have access in Montreal to what very rarely you get access to anywhere else in the world. It’s one thing to hope for businesses to come here, but its another to actually build AI solutions here so we can foster a community. If you want to accelerate that you need to lower the barrier to entry,” said Gagne told MTLinTECH.

Montreal’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning community arguably started out as leaders in their trade, but community experts told MTLinTECH in April that US braindrain is slowly sucking the lifeblood out of the community.

“The valley has their eyes on that talent pool and they’re trying to attract a lot of people,” Gagne said in April. “The numbers surrounding braindrain are insane.”

His idea to create the Element AI incubator seems logical then.

The new organization says its mission is to build upon local resources and foster the creation of “hundreds of jobs over the next five years.” With each spinoff startup Element.AI creates, Gagne figures at least five to 15 jobs will be created.

The CEO said since the launch party Tuesday night, Element.AI has been “swamped with resumes.”

Who better to do it then the guys who have lived the highs and lows within Montreal’s AI and machine learning communities?

Element says it will be investing in the community. It wants to be an “anchor” within Montreal’s tech community.

“We’re in the middle of a huge market, we have a high concentration of talent, a great cost of living and we’re going to use the assets that we have here to attract talent to come here and build their businesses,” said Gagne.

PHOTO: Contact MTL (@GreaterMTL)

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