Montreal-based Element AI is the latest artificial intelligence (AI) startup to catch the attention of big tech players, raking in a $102 million series A round, which it is calling the biggest series A ever for an AI company, from investors including Intel, Microsoft and Nvidia.
Element AI works with companies in fields like cybersecurity, fintech, manufacturing, logistics and transportation and robotics to make sense of their data using AI. It works with Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms (MILA), an AI research center, in a "unique, non-exploitative model of academic cooperation" providing companies -- big or small -- that are just at the beginning stages of leveraging AI with education and consulting on how to put it to use.
Its series A funding was led by venture capital firm Data Collective (DCVC) with participation from Fidelity Investments Canada, current customer Hanwha Investment, National Bank of Canada, Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Real Ventures, several of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds and tech companies Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Nvidia Corp. (Nasdaq: NVDA), which is a chipset partner.
Tech companies are interested in AI as a way to automate and accelerate complex, data‐intensive processes and help their customers, including telecom service providers, do the same. Element AI wants to make sure this ability isn't reserved just for the big guys with deep pockets, but is also available to any company in any industry with data in need of parsing (which is all of them). (See The Near Future Is Here.)
The startup says it will use the fresh funding to accelerate its capabilities, invest in large-scale AI projects internationally and create 250 jobs in the Canadian high tech sector by January 2018, up from its 105 employees today. It also plans to open offices in Japan, Korea and Singapore to expand in the Asian market. Its goal is to make its algorithms so robust that any company can use them with their own sets of data essentially through a plug-and-play method.
For Element AI's investors, the cash infusion was as much for its platform as it is in the brains behind the startup. Element AI was formed just eight months ago by serial entrepreneur Jean‐François Gagné, who has founded and successfully exited two AI startups already and was formerly the chief product officer and chief innovation officer at JDA Software; and Yoshua Bengio, one of the three "founding fathers" of deep learning. Bengio is also an AI researcher at MILA, leveraging his work there in the startup's consulting.
Montreal, where Element AI is based, is becoming a hotbed of AI activity, based in large part because of its proximity to research universities and tech companies like Microsoft and Google, which have both set up big AI labs there. (See Eurobites: London AI Startup Thinks Big.)
AI in general is already a hotbed of M&A activity. A number of the startups on the scene have been snatched up by the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, but there are also still a number ripe for acquisition -- or investment -- as companies from industries ranging from retail to telecom to security to automotive seek to understand how AI can transform their businesses and potentially the employment landscape as well. (See Radware Survey: C-Suite Trusts AI for Security, Data Sharing Key to AT&T's AI Push and AI Key to Telcos' Digital Transformation – Survey .)
"The most serious problems facing global industry and government today involve too much complex and rapidly changing data for the cognitive capacity of even large numbers of human experts working together," DCVC Managing Partner Matt Ocko said in a release on the funding. "These groups -- and the customers and citizens they serve -- need intelligent systems that can work in concert with them to field that scale and complexity."
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms