While the US wages its trade war against China and further restricts its immigration policies, Canada has been reaping the benefits. By attracting highly skilled workers from around the world, hosting international conferences for tech start-ups, and pouring money into artificial intelligence (AI) research, Canada is proving to be a formidable force in the global AI race. In fact, it was the first country in the world to launch a national, 5-year strategic plan in 2017, dubbed the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, wherein $125 million from the federal budget was allocated for investment in AI research and talent. Being the economic and research hub of the country, Toronto is similarly taking huge strides towards innovations in AI and biotechnology.

In the past few years, Toronto has made headlines for several technological achievements. The city was a contender for Amazon’s new headquarters, hosted one of the world’s leading tech conferences Collision, and was chosen as the test grounds for both Alphabet’s smart neighborhood Sidewalk Labs and Uber’s self-driving cars. Home to the MaRS Discovery District—North America’s largest urban innovation hub—and several universities with strong computer and biological science research programs, it’s hard for Torontonians to resist the urge to ask, “Can Toronto become the new Silicon Valley?” But how does Toronto’s biotech scene compare to other classically tech-savvy cities worldwide, and does Toronto really have what it takes to become a world leader in AI and biotech research?

Incubators and accelerators: Building towards impactful innovation

It’s the Canadian character—how we are wired. It leads us to innovation that’s impactful and inclusive” – Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS Discovery District

Situated in the heart of downtown TO, surrounded by the city’s finest hospitals and university research buildings, lies the MaRS Discovery District, a launchpad for startups and home to over 1,200 home-grown tech companies. Focusing on four sectors—cleantech, health, fintech, and enterprise software—the non-profit corporation has helped Canadian ventures raise over $4.83B in capital. Some of these ventures may sound familiar, such as Ritual, the food-ordering app with over 5,000 restaurant partners in the country, or WealthSimple, a robo-investment firm. Highland Therapeutics, whose goal is to develop a new drug therapy for ADHD, is an example of MaRS-funded companies in search for life-changing medical discoveries.

Capitalizing on Toronto’s tech boom, Ryerson University’s business accelerator, the DMZ, has supported over 400 tech start-ups nationwide in the past 10 years. Last year, UBI Global, an innovation intelligence company, ranked the DMZ as the #1 university-based business incubator in the world. Seeking to attract global talent to Toronto, the DMZ is launching a new program, the DMZYYZ, which will fly international entrepreneurs to Toronto for an opportunity to engage with the local start-up ecosystem whilst reflecting Canadian values of hospitality and inclusivity. Ultimately, the goal is not only to attract talent to Toronto, but also to keep it.

A tale of two AI institutes

Increasingly, the world’s most promising researchers in deep learning and other AI subfields are looking at Canada as a hub with many opportunities to collaborate, advance research and develop applications.” – Geoffrey Hinton, Chief Scientific Advisor of Vector Institute, VP Engineering and Engineering Fellow of Google, Emeritus Professor at University of Toronto

Of the many organizations to call MaRS home, the Vector Institute is perhaps one of the most renowned for its dedication to AI and machine learning research. Indeed, its Chief Scientific Advisor, Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, godfather of deep learning and Vice President Engineering of Google, is one of the most sought-after minds in Silicon Valley. Notably, Hinton’s breakthrough work on artificial neural networks in the 1980s occurred right here at the University of Toronto. In an attempt to combat the AI brain drain that has afflicted Canada over the past decade, the Vector Institute brings together $135 million worth of federal, provincial, and industry-sponsored funding to attract academic researchers and multi-national corporations alike towards AI R&D in Ontario. A crucial step towards achieving impactful AI research is commercialization, and thus Vector is also dedicated to helping researchers turn the fruits of their labor into applicable products.

Appointed by the Government of Canada to develop and lead the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is another research institute at MaRS. Whereas AI research in the US is primarily funded by venture capital, Canada’s government funding can, in this case, be advantageous by allowing people to pursue less popular yet more fundamental (and important) questions in the field. The impact CIFAR has made to the Toronto R&D scene reflects this: thus far, the global organization has funded over 400 researchers from 22 countries, including 19 Nobel Laureates. Today, thanks to Vector, CIFAR, and similar initiatives, the Toronto-Waterloo region, also known as “The Corridor”, now employs over 205,000 tech workers, making it the second largest tech cluster in North America after Silicon Valley.

Winning the global AI race

Over the last few years, Toronto has taken the necessary steps towards becoming a global leader in tech innovation and commercialization. Although in 2007-2017, less than half of ~100 Canadian-developed machine-learning patents actually stayed in Canadian hands, the future looks brighter and can shine more strongly if the city and federal government strategize wisely. For example, Canada’s small population (compared to that of the US, China, or the EU) presents a challenge, as companies are forced to think globally from the onset. Similarly, increased private funding, as is currently being provided by local research institutes and incubators, can bring the focus to local innovation and commercialization. Finally, an additional tactic may involve a government-backed intellectual property collective, or sovereign patent fund, which protects publicly funded R&D to ensure Canadian research translates to Canadian products. Regardless of strategy, one thing remains certain: with the combination of a socially aware federal government, Canadian hospitality and openness, and Torontonian talent, it’s not so far-fetched for Toronto to become the next Silicon Valley.

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Pailin Chiaranunt

Pailin is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. She works in Dr. Arthur Mortha's laboratory on creating a high-dimensional map of host-microbiome interactions in the intestine. In her spare time, Pailin enjoys traveling, reading philosophy, and dabbling in martial arts and languages.

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