‘More organized and tighter than in Silicon Valley,’ French pharma company Servier tabs Montreal for new AI hub

Montreal is gaining yet another artificial intelligence hub, this one specializing in pharmaceutical research and development.

The newest AI centre comes via France’s Servier Group. The large pharmaceutical company will partner with Montreal’s Centech, the ÉTS-powered acceleration and incubation space for startups.

ETS (École de technologie supérieure) is the Montreal-based engineering school part of the Université du Québec system.

Servier’s new AI hub at Centech

Servier is an international pharmaceutical company with a presence in 150 countries, employing 22,000 people. It brought in around $7.2 billion (4.6 billion euros) in revenue in 2019.

Hosted at Centech’s Collision Lab, the new hub will serve as Servier Group’s first international AI unit.

Servier’s Virginie Dominguez said the mission of the Montreal Hub is to test and explore the possibilities of using AI in the specific area of drug research and development.

The company also wants to fuel collaboration between its international R&D teams and Montreal’s local ecosystem. The hub will also establish relationships with Canadian and American regulatory bodies in AI. To do this, the company created a “data team” as part of joining the lab.

“Artificial intelligence opens up wonderful perspectives for patients, in particular in detection, prevention, and diagnosis of diseases,” said Servier Group’s Claude Bertrand. “It should significantly improve the productivity and efficiency of R&D by influencing all the steps in drug discovery. This hub will allow us to speed up this transformation by collaborating with one of the world’s best ecosystems.”

“The Hub fits in directly with the Group’s global strategy and R&D strategy: focusing on oncology, speeding up R&D projects, registering a new molecular entity every 3 years… with the goal of making innovative medicines available to patients,” added Bertrand.

Big companies collaborating with local tech minds

The news comes just weeks after Element AI’s spectacular fall from grace.

RELATED: Element AI to be sold to US interests

Perhaps overshadowed under Element’s fanfare and hype over the past two years were smaller Montreal outfits and hubs working through AI-focused tech.

Centech, as an example, incubates and accelerates tech businesses focused on health and medical technology, and more. General manager Richard Chenier noted that the new partnership with Servier fits with its goal of attracting large companies that want to develop AI projects.

It’s usually a win-win for both the large company and the tech community. Servier will gain access and collaborate with Montreal’s tech community. Meanwhile, folks in the tech community, like smaller startups, can ultimately earn business from the larger company. At least that’s usually the aim.

“We are very proud to have been chosen by a major international player in pharmaceuticals such as Servier, as an incubator specializing in deep-tech which supports, in particular, startups in the medical field,” said Chenier.

Choosing Canada: ‘More organized and tighter than in Silicon Valley’

But why Montreal for its new AI hub?

There’s political motivation behind the choice, said Bertrand.

“Canada was the first country, in 2017, to develop a national strategy for AI. For 10 years the development of new technologies and public/private partnerships in this area has been a priority for Canada… which seemed to us to be more organized and tighter than in Silicon Valley, which we also considered as a place to set up our Hub,” said Bertram. “Finally, Canada sets itself apart by aiming for ethical AI, which fits in with the needs of the pharmaceutical industry.”

This isn’t the first time Servier has invested in Montreal. In November, 2019, the company created a $50,000 scholarship for the School of Artificial Intelligence in Health (SAIH) of the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). Both Servier and Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) each pitched in $25,000.

Launched in November 2018, SAIH has over 1,500 students and nearly 20,000 people have participated in its activities.

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