TORONTO – Tony Lacavera is putting his money where his mouth is.
The former Wind Mobile CEO, who sits on the board of startup-funding charity Next Canada, and whose venture capital firm Globalive Communications Corp. is one of its leading financial backers, served as master of ceremonies on Wednesday as Next Canada revealed the funding partners behind its latest initiative, NextAI.
Lacavera framed the new artificial intelligence (AI) startup funding program, which so far has received $5.15 million in financial support from a series of high-profile donors including Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), auto parts giant Magna International Inc., and Scotiabank, as the private sector’s contribution to such AI-friendly government- and education-backed organizations as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which he said had provided Canada with a “small but fleeting competitive advantage” in the field.
“Despite excelling on the research front, in recent years the AI brain drain has become more and more profound, as so much of our top talent leaves for Silicon Valley and beyond,” Lacavera said during a Jan. 25 presentation. “At NextAI, our aim is to stop and reverse this brain drain and actually attract the best and the brightest from around the globe to Canada – and the only way we’re going to ensure Canada continues to make its way in artificial intelligence is if we make it the best environment possible for both creation and innovation.”
In an interview last year with IT World Canada sister site ITBusiness.ca, Lacavera argued that the federal government’s much-vaunted “innovation agenda” would only succeed if the private, public, and education sectors worked together while focusing on sectors in which Canada could excel – including AI.
“Many people think Canada’s been asleep at the wheel, but our governments and education institutions have actually quietly been investing in AI for decades,” he later IT World Canada. “We’ve established a leadership position. Now that the whole world is catching onto AI, we really need to solidify that position.”
As the name implies, NextAI will provide each of its first cohort’s participants with up to $200,000 in funding, access to state-of-the-art technology, mentorship from business leaders and scientists, and education from some of the field’s top academics, including experts from Harvard, MIT, NYU, the University of Guelph, and the University of Toronto. Their goal: to create commercially-viable AI companies – and help solidify Canada’s reputation as a global leader in the field.
“Artificial intelligence means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but whether it’s advanced robotics, whether it’s being able to analyze data and apply it to a solution like a human – which is what we’re looking for in autonomous driving – AI has a lot of applications,” Magna CEO Don Walker told IT World Canada.
During a panel titled “A CEO’s Perspective,” Walker said that Magna, despite being viewed as a manufacturing company, is as much in the software business as the automotive business.
“There are more lines of code in a vehicle than there is in a plane body,” he told the audience. “We’re in a business involving sophisticated information, so we already use AI. There’s potential in every industry for AI.”
During the same panel, RBC President and CEO Dave McKay called AI a “fundamental” tool that Canada needs to harness in every industry it can if it wants to remain competitive into the 21st century.
“At RBC… [AI] is creating new capabilities for our customers,” McKay said. “We’re deploying it into our cybersecurity, we’re deploying it in brand management, we’re adding it to customer solutions, we’re integrating it into our operating environment… AI is a natural tool to help us become more efficient, be more effective with customers, and create a better experience overall.”
While the program itself is based in Toronto, NextAI is open to entrepreneurs and AI talent from around the world, with Lacavera noting that the first cohort’s 75 participants collectively represent more than 20 different countries, including Germany, India, Israel, Italy, and the U.S.
The program was developed last summer during an innovation brainstorming session sponsored by RBC and Magna, both of whom are serving as founding corporate partners along with BDC Capital and Scotiabank.
NextAI’s organizers have also formed technology sponsorships with IBM Canada, Google Inc., and Nvidia, which all contributed millions in hardware and services, and will provide participants with funding, corporate mentorship, and access to industry experts, customer trials, and data sets.
During another panel, titled “Investing in Canada,” Scotiabank executive vice president and co-head of IT and enterprise technology Michael Zerbs noted that Canada’s present AI ecosystem is stronger than many in the tech industry give it credit for.
“I think, frankly, sometimes we are too shy when it comes to talking about what we have in the Canadian ecosystem… whether it’s here in Toronto, or something going on in Montreal, Halifax, or B.C.,” Zerbs said. “We have this unbelievable ecosystem of… students who are totally motivated, and… all they need is a catalyst like NextAI, and corporate partners, like Scotiabank, who have a sense of purpose and initiative and know what AI can do. It’s all here.”
“We have a really fantastic opportunity, and we shouldn’t be shy about it,” he continued. “We shouldn’t beat ourselves up… We should talk about it… and execute it.”
“We should be less Canadian,” moderator Amanda Lang said.
“Exactly,” Zerbs replied.