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Mr. Robot

For more than 30 years, Geoffrey Hinton hovered at the edges of artificial intelligence research, an outsider clinging to a simple proposition: that computers could think like humans do—using intuition rather than rules. The idea had taken root in Hinton as a teenager when a friend described how a hologram works: innumerable beams of light bouncing off an object are recorded, and then those many representations are scattered over a huge database. Hinton, who comes from a somewhat eccentric, generations-deep family of overachieving scientists, immediately understood that the human brain worked like that, too—information in our brains is spread across a vast network of cells, linked by an endless map of neurons, firing and connecting and transmitting along a billion paths. He wondered: could a computer behave the same way?

The answer, according to the academic mainstream, was a deafening no. Computers learned best by rules and logic, they said. And besides, Hinton’s notion, called neural networks—which later became the groundwork for “deep learning” or “machine learning”—had already been disproven. In the late ’50s, a Cornell scientist named Frank Rosenblatt had proposed the world’s first neural network machine. It was called the Perceptron, and it had a simple objective—to recognize images. The goal was to show it a picture of an apple, and it would, at least in theory, spit out “apple.” The Perceptron ran on an IBM mainframe, and it was ugly. A riot of criss-crossing silver wires, it looked like someone had glued the guts of a furnace filter to a fridge door. Still, the device sparked some serious sci-fi hyperbole. In 1958, the New York Times published a prediction that it would be the first device to think like the human brain. “[The Perceptron] will be able to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself and be conscious of its existence.”

From anthropology to AI: Meet the U of T expert guiding the software companies of tomorrow

Helen Kontozopoulos may not be an artificial intelligence researcher, but she knows more than most about the technology – not to mention what it takes to put it to practical use.

That’s among the reasons the co-director of the University of Toronto’s Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) was recently tapped to represent Canada on an AI mission to the United Kingdom organized by the U.K. Science and Innovation Network.

The three-day mission, with stops in London, Oxford and Cambridge, explored opportunities for international collaboration in AI-related research and business initiatives – with the latter falling directly within Kontozopoulos’s wheelhouse.

“Just because you’re making great technology doesn’t mean someone is going to buy it,” Kontozopoulos says, citing Google Glass as a classic example of an impressive technological hammer in desperate search of a nail.

“We need to be solving real problems for real customers and users.”

Creative destruction labs provides window into Calgary’s innovation

Calgary is making its own reality.

As the city’s economic downturn enters a fourth year, there are days when it feels the surfeit of discouraging news has no end. Whether it’s low natural gas prices, concerns about competitiveness and regulation or the persistent lack of certainty around pipelines, there is plenty to feed the Eeyore mindset.

But it needn’t. No, we are not headed into another crazy boom time driven by high commodity prices and business investment. We are starting to grow new companies – created through the application of technology – that will one day be self sustaining contributors to significant economic growth.

An important catalyst to this is Creative Destruction Labs-Rockies, which launched here in December at the University of Calgary through the Haskayne School of Business.

The mandate of Creative Destruction Labs is to change the way deep science and technology ventures are commercialized by leveraging resources in the private sector. It first came to life in 2012, under the leadership of University of Toronto and Rotman School of Management professor Ajay Agrawal.

Canadian tech companies are growing, but not as fast as firms in the U.S., says report

Not only are more Canadian companies becoming successful on the world stage, but they’re not being lost to foreign buyers, according to the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre.

Compared to 2016, the centre’s Narwhal List – Canada’s 50 most financially attractive private tech companies – says Canada has almost doubled the number of firms that are on track to become unicorns (startups valued at $1 billion or more). Twenty-nine of the list’s 50 firms raised a total of $1.2 billion for an average round of $41 million per company. But Canada has a lot of work ahead of itself, the report suggests.

While 18 Canadian companies enjoyed a financial velocity – a metric determined by the amount of funding a company has raised divided by the number of years it has been in existence – of between $10 and 25 million per year raised, which amounts to approximately $105 million per company, American unicorns have reached nearly double that amount in the same time span.

Liftoff! U of T startup’s business takes flight with satellite launch in China

A tiny, bread loaf-sized communications satellite built by a University of Toronto startup spent the weekend quietly zipping over the heads of unwitting Torontonians – and there’s likely many more to come.

Kepler Communications, founded by U of T alumni, said its first nanosatellite was successfully deployed by a rocket that launched on Jan. 19 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern China. At an altitude of about 552 km, the satellite’s polar orbit takes it over Kepler’s home base in Toronto twice in the morning and two more times in the evening.

The launch – touted as a first for a commercial communications satellite operating in low earth orbit on a frequency known as the Ku-band – is an important first step toward Kepler’s goal of providing low-cost data communications for connected devices on Earth and beyond. But, for now, Kepler’s founders are just revelling in their accomplishment.

“The company began two years ago with a conversation at the bar,” says Jeffrey Osborne, a co-founder of Kepler who studied aerospace engineering at U of T.  “So you get a little awe-inspired when you actually put something in orbit. That’s pretty cool.”

Hamilton company makes Narwhal List

Hamilton’s Fusion Pharmaceuticals made the Narwhal List of Canada’s 50 most financially attractive private tech companies.

The healthcare company — founded in 2014 — is a spinout of the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization.

The list includes Fusion Pharameceuticals’ “financial velocity” — the amount of funding the firm has raised divided by its number of years in existence — at $11.5 million. The annual Narwhal List is put out by the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto. To view the full list, visit impactcentre.ca/narwhal/.

New cancer immunotherapy gets a US$62-million boost thanks to U of T antibody engineering technology

A new therapy that enhances the body’s ability to fight cancer has received a US$62-million boost thanks to the University of Toronto’s antibody engineering technology.

Called Myeloid Tuning, the therapy is designed to boost the body’s anti-tumour immunity by removing the cells that normally put brakes on the immune system using engineered antibodies from U of T’s Toronto Recombinant Antibody Centre (TRAC).

“Instead of turning on the immune cells directly, you get rid of the cells that are inhibiting the immune cells,” says Professor Sachdev Sidhu. He co-founded TRAC with Professor Jason Moffat as a state-of-the-art antibody engineering platform at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, where both are faculty members.

Unlike natural antibodies produced by the immune system to fight disease, engineered antibodies can be designed to target any molecule or cell type and are becoming increasingly used in medicine as a new generation of drugs.

Story-sharing startup founded by U of T alumni raises $US51 million in funding

The crowdsourced entertainment startup Wattpad, co-founded by two University of Toronto alumni, has secured a US$51 million round of financing that it says will be used to invest in machine learning and new forms of interactive storytelling.

The funding round, announced Wednesday, was led by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings and values the company at around US$400 million, according to TechCrunch. Other investors in Wattpad, a platform for users to write and share stories, include the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and investors from the Philippines and Hong Kong.

“Entertainment is in a period of disruption, and how people find and experience stories is evolving,” said CEO Allen Lau, who has a pair of engineering degrees from U of T, in a statement. “With our global community of users, hundreds of millions of stories and data-driven approach to helping people and partners find great content, Wattpad is leading both sides of this equation.

“This new funding from Tencent and our other investors shows that confidence in our vision is growing alongside our revenue, our success and our community.”

(Not) as seen on TV: Why one U of T entrepreneur balked at a Dragon’s Den deal in favour of ‘organic’ expansion

Noureddin Chahrour’s successful 2015 appearance on CBC’s Dragon’s Den was a key turning point for his research-based startup Adrenalease Posture Apparel – but not in the way you might think. Chahrour, a University of Toronto alumnus, agreed on-air to hand over 30 per cent of Adrenalease, which makes posture-enhancing garments, in exchange for $90,000 from three of the program’s panel members.

However, he later backed out of the deal after advisers at the Impact Centre, one of nine U of T entrepreneurship hubs, suggested he was selling himself short.

“They said I would be crazy to give up that kind of equity,” says Chahrour, who received a bachelor’s degree with honours in kinesiology two years ago. “That’s honestly not a lot of money. If you want to raise a real round [of funding], you’re looking at $500,000-plus.”

Fast forward two years and Chahrour is not only still in business, he’s preparing to launch Adrenalease’s latest product – a posture-enhancing sports bra – with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

BlueRock Therapeutics and Hootsuite Top the 2018 Narwhal List

 The U.S. may have unicorns to describe their most valuable companies, but Canada has another horned animal to associate their own with, and this one is far less mythical.

The Impact Centre’s second annual Narwhal List has been released, detailing some of Canada’s most financially attractive private tech and healthcare companies. The term “narwhal” is a play off unicorn, a designation coined by VC Aileen Lee given to startups that have crossed the billion dollar valuation mark.

“The intention of the Narwhal list is to focus on the ability of firms to scale up and reach world-class status,” the report reads. “The ranking system is derived from publicly available information and is capable of tracking all firms in the country—not just those that elect to participate by revealing private revenue data.”

The ordering of the list is compiled by what the Impact Centre calls “financial velocity,” defined as “the amount of funding a firm has raised divided by the number of years it has been in existence.” The list features some of the most recognizable companies in the country.