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Toronto is now a global technology powerhouse for AI startups

With a population of close to 6.5 million people, Toronto is the largest city in Canada. Not only is the city rich in cultural diversity, but its economy is highly diversified, being home to the Toronto Stock Exchange, the headquarters of Canada’s five largest banks, and the headquarters of many large Canadian and multinational corporations.

And it is Toronto’s cultural and economic diversity that has fueled the city’s rapid growth in a number of high-tech areas, including artificial intelligence. And according to AdWeek, an influx of talent and capital, combined with public-private programs, has helped Toronto become an AI hub for innovation ranging from the retail sector to healthcare.

How fast is AI tech growing in Toronto? PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada (PwC) reports that 2017 turned out to be a record year for AI investments, with startups raising $191 million. And in the first quarter of 2018, PwC Canada found that investments in Canadian AI companies increased 88 percent year over year, with eight deals totaling $83 million.

The majority of the deals are in the seed and early stages and compared to previous quarters, they are attracting larger investments. And the most active investors included BDC, MaRS, iNovia Capital and Fonds de Solidarite FTQ.

“Canada and Toronto have amazing opportunities right now,” said Janet Bannister, a partner with VC firm Real Ventures who moved from Silicon Valley back to her home country. “This is our time to shine on the global stage, and I just want to make sure that we as a country, we as a city take advantage of that—and we’ll look back in 20 years and see this section as a turning point.”

MaRS Discovery District at the epicenter of growth
MaRS Discovery District is a not-for-profit corporation founded in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2000. Its stated goal is to commercialize publicly funded medical research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises.

And believe it or not, but since 2014, startup companies emerging from MaRS have created more than 4,000 jobs, and in the period of 2011 to 2014 had raised over $750 million in capital investment.

Completed MaRS Phase 2 in 2016.

Completed MaRS Phase 2 in 2016.
Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

The 1.5 million-square-foot facility houses hundreds of startups covering a variety of industries—along with its broader “MaRS ecosystem” that includes more than 100 AI and machine-learning ventures ranging from healthcare and clean tech to financial tech and enterprise.

In the MaRS ecosystem, you will find diverse ventures such as Uber’s first non-U.S. facility for researching autonomous cars; Borealis AI, an academic AI research institute for the Royal Bank of Canada; the AI startup incubator, Element AI; and the Vector Institute itself.

Becoming a tech hub didn’t happen overnight
Everyone that matters to the discussion agrees that the recent AI brain gain came about through a convergence between the city’s academic, government and corporate sectors in fostering a nurturing atmosphere. This started back in the 1980s, according to David Fleet, a computer science professor at the University of Toronto and faculty member at the Vector Institute.

It was at this time that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research began focusing on areas of research ranging from social issues to quantum materials.

high technology businesses supported by Quantum Valley Investment Fund.

high technology businesses supported by Quantum Valley Investment Fund.
Quantum Valley Investments

“The proximity to world-class technology is really the proximity to innovative minds and know-how people who can think outside the box and get things built that would otherwise be very difficult to do,” Fleet said.

Today, it has helped that the U.S. has tightened restrictions on visas for technology immigrants, while Canada has a newly enacted immigration law that helps highly skilled workers obtain visas in as little as two weeks. In fact, MaRS did a survey of over 100 tech companies in Toronto and came up with some surprising results.

MaRS found that 53 percent of respondents saw more international applicants in 2017 over 2016. The majority of new international hires were from the U.S., followed by India, China, and Brazil.

But we have to give a lot of credit to the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo—which both have a history of strong computer science programs and have been focusing on machine learning since before it was popular. So all this is a very good reason to assert that Toronto has become the tech hub of the north.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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