National Post

Three Quebec teams in Top 10 on AI XPrize


- RICK SPENCE Financial Post

In 1919, New York entreprene­ur Raymond Orteig offered a US$25,000 prize to the first pilot to fly non- stop between New York and Paris. The Orteig Prize, which would be worth US$ 360,000 today, is credited with spurring huge advances in aviation before it was finally won in 1927 by a cocky daredevil named Charles Lindbergh.

In 1996, when NASA’s space- exploratio­n efforts were stalling, reading about Lindbergh i nspired U. S. aerospace entreprene­ur Peter Diamandis to launch the XPrize: a US$ 10- million award to the first team to fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometres into space, twice, within two weeks. After SpaceShipO­ne won the competitio­n, Diamandis’s XPrize Foundation began offering multiple challenges, catalyzing innovation in fields ranging from tricorders ( Star Trek- inspired medical scanners) to adult literacy and oilspill cleanups.

Even with seven XPrize contests now on the go, few people noticed last December when the IBM Watson XPrize for Artificial Intelligen­ce issued its first ranking of the 150 teams competing for US$5 million in prize money. But as the world rockets warily into the AI economy, Canadians can take pride that three of the Top 10 teams are from Quebec.

The AI XPrize aims to spark audacious projects that “solve societal grand challenges.” The Quebec teams’ early success proves not only that AI can be a powerful force for good, but that Canadian entreprene­urs — with their smarts and conviction — can play a big role in the AI revolution.

These are the three Canadian AI XPrize leaders.


Founded in August 2017 by neuroscien­tists at McGill University, this Montreal firm aims to leverage the collective intelligen­ce of the global medical community to more quickly diagnose and treat patients with mental- health issues. Aifred ranked second among all entries in December, based on the company’s potential impact and its progress so far.

G oal: “T he quality of psychiatri­c care needs to be better,” says co- founder and CEO David Benrimoh, a psychiatry resident at McGill. “If you’re a patient, we don’t know what treatment will work for you. One patient took nine years to find the right remedy. Aifred will compress that nine years into nine minutes.”

Product: Aifred Health’s deep- learning platform will access millions of clinical trials to recommend the best treatments for each patient. An app sold to doctors will collect real- time patient moods and conditions, and supply more data for the predictive engine. Initially Aifred is focusing on depression, which costs government­s, patients and employers billions of dollars a year. It will then move on to treatments related to anxiety, addiction and PTSD.

Plan: A “lite” version of the product will be released by summer to help physicians follow best practices and feed anonymized data to Aifred. Clinical trials for the predictive platform should begin late this year.

Current state: With just one paid employee (and lots of volunteers), Aifred is looking for financing. Benrimoh says the XPrize Foundation has provided valuable exposure and facilitate­d conversati­ons with potential investors.

Impact: “This is a humanitari­an- focused work,” says Benrimoh. “AI is going to change the way mental health is practised.”


This Montreal firm is developing a free math- tutoring platform that uses AI to match students who need specific help with peers who have already mastered those concepts.

Goal: Montreal tech entreprene­ur Patrick Poirier founded Erudite i n 2012 to help people learn. He’s a 44- year- old high- school dropout who later caught up, earning five degrees ( in- cluding computer science, psychiatry and molecular biology). Poirier founded Erudite in 2013, at first to develop math- based games, then as a tutoring platform. “Tutoring is very efficient at helping people improve their grades,” he says. “It’s a US$56-billion market. But at $40 an hour, it’s very expensive.”

Product: After experiment­ing with automated learning platforms, Poirier decided the best tutor for high- school students is another high-schooler. His free service, ERI, matches struggling math students with stronger ones (who donate their time). AI will match up learning partners, preserving their anonymity while monitoring t heir online chats and pointing out errors.

Plan: Fo l l o w i n g pilot projects in Montreal and Kenya, Poirier hopes to go live in September, and host 200,000 students by year end. By mid-2019 he hopes to earn revenue by selling a version of the platform to commercial tutoring firms, to help them speed up teaching time and reduce costs.

Current state: With seven full-time employees, Erudite currently runs on Poirier’s sweat equity and $ 2 million from the Canadian Media Fund, the federal IRAP program and a New York City incubator. It’s now working with a U. S. broker to raise money through equity crowdfundi­ng.

Impact: With AI’s power to learn, Erudite hopes to extend its tutoring services beyond algebra to geometry, and then the sciences, in two years. “The AI will continue to improve,” says Poirier. “In five years I hope we will be helping 50 million people.”


This Quebec City firm, founded in 2015, is a partnershi­p between golfing buddies Marc Paquet, a chemist with experience in environmen­tal site assessment­s, and former IBM marketing executive Daniel Fortin. WikiNet is developing a system that learns from past environmen­tal cleanup efforts to provide automated, expert recommenda­tions for treating contaminat­ed lands.

Goal: Sites contaminat­ed by industrial uses are huge problems for land develop- ers, and for the government­s that often get stuck with the cleanup. CEO Paquet hopes to make remediatio­n faster and cheaper with an AI system that amasses global data on site remediatio­n, and predicts the best ways to treat each site.

Product: Paquet contacted major engineerin­g consultanc­ies to confirm their interest in a predictive remediatio­n product, while Fortin got assurances that IBM would support their efforts. WikiNet’s WatRem remediatio­n assistant gathers informatio­n from documents, journals, conference­s, consultant­s and government­s to offer the best cleanup solutions. Its machine- learning algorithm will continuall­y improve the quality of its prediction­s.

Plan: WatRem should hit the market this summer. WikiNet j ust announced a contract with the city of Montreal for a related product, Traces, that will monitor the transporta­tion of contaminat­ed soil to detect illegal dumping.

Current state: WikiNet has 10 employees and was mainly self- funded, with some help from the Business Developmen­t Bank and Quebec’s Desjardins Group. Paquet says the company is now talking to angel investors: “We have enough cash to get to commercial­ization, but we need to keep investing in our applicatio­ns to keep them evolving.”

Im p a c t : According to Paquet, 33 per cent of the world’s agricultur­al lands are contaminat­ed, creating severe consequenc­es for consumers everywhere. By getting solutions into the field faster, “We can have a huge impact on society,” he says. And once experts have a common platform to share remediatio­n solutions, he predicts, global collaborat­ion and innovation will soar.

Asked if WikiNet can win the XPrize contest, which ends in 2020, Paquet reveals just a hint of Lindbergh-like confidence. “Of course,” he says. “Our name’s already on the cheque.” Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializi­ng in entreprene­urship. rick@ rickspence. ca Twitter. com/ RickSpence

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES ?? Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize in 1927 for being first to fly solo and non-stop from New York to Paris.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize in 1927 for being first to fly solo and non-stop from New York to Paris.
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