By Rob Blackstein
There is nothing synthetic about Jean-François Gagné’s expertise in artificial intelligence (AI). Having already founded and successfully exited two companies in AI and operations research, he co-founded Montreal-based Element AI in 2016 and, as its CEO, is often asked to help educate top-level management about the impact of AI. But before becoming a serial entrepreneur, he was the youngest global C-level executive at a top 20 enterprise software firm when he was chief product officer and chief innovation officer at JDA Software Group Inc.
Gagné’s vision for Element AI is to create a new model for developing AI through a “collaborative, non-exploitative” model that will benefit all. It’s an approach that has caught the eye of none other than the world’s biggest software company, Microsoft Corp., one of Element AI’s investors. In June, Element closed a US$102-million financing round led by San Francisco venture-capital fund Data Collective.
Aside from Gagné, there’s some serious brainpower at work behind Element, with more than 70 PhDs on staff, including university fellows, applied researchers and developers, all of whom try to show companies how they can successfully embrace and adopt AI solutions. “We’re painting a very clear picture of what new customers need to do in order to stay ahead of the curve,” Gagné says.
Charles Boulanger has a rather comprehensive list when discussing his secrets of success. “To succeed in business, you must know yourself,” says the CEO of LeddarTech, a Quebec City-based company founded in 2007 that makes solid-state Lidar (SSL), a sensing technology primarily used in the transportation industry. He says ambition, audacity and a strong belief in your own ideas also rank up there, but, most importantly, you need a plan. “Many entrepreneurs have a vision, but lack a plan,” he says. “A solid plan is the key stepping stone to executing a winning vision.”
Lidar is the key technology that allows for self-driving or autonomous automobiles. Instead of delivering one-size-fits-all finished products like many Lidar vendors do, LeddarTech provides its core technology packaged into systems-on-chips or modules, allowing customers to develop what they specifically need. Boulanger says LeddarTech’s goal is to enable autonomous driving solutions that will be ready for high-volume commercial deployment as soon as 2020.
Boulanger has a background in mechanical engineering, and his 35-plus years of senior management experience includes raising more than $600 million in financing (including US$101 million in 2017 from Le Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Aptiv) and completing several acquisitions and sales transactions, including a pair of IPOs and one leveraged management buyout. All that experience will be needed to capture a bigger chunk of the expected market for self-driving cars. “You must be ready to move fast in order to capture market opportunities when they arise,” he says.
From a cybersecurity perspective, eSentire Inc. wants to have your back, says founder and chief security strategist Eldon Sprickerhoff. “I’d like to see us continue to increase our visibility into all attack vectors within our clients, offering differential responses as appropriate, depending on the severity of the attack and the intent of the attacker,” he says.
The brains behind this Cambridge, Ont.-based cybersecurity services firm is clearly a modest man ready to credit others, saying he’s both sustained and humbled by the talent of his fellow employees. “Personally, I feel that flexibility, mere competence, single-mindedness, dogged persistence and a good helping of luck goes a long way towards approaching success.”
Sprickerhoff says eSentire, which offers micro-incident capabilities (called managed detection and response in the industry), is well into the “scale-up phase,” and that factors into every decision it makes, whether it’s a technical, personnel or logistical concern or to do with its methodology. Technology can only go so far, he says, so eSentire relies on its analysts “to interpret indicators of concern or compromise, engage with the client as appropriate, and resolve small security incidents before they cascade to a serious situation.”
He believed in the model enough to dip into his own assets — taking out a $150,000 home equity line of credit in 2001 — to help fund the company and survive the early days. Last year, the company raised US$100 million from Warburg Pincus LLC, proving he’s not alone in his belief.
Root Data Center
AJ Byers knows his way around a data centre, having built one of the first non-telco ones in the country in the late-1990s. He also headed one of Canada’s biggest data centre providers (with 15 centres) originally called Primus, then BlackIron Data and, ultimately, Rogers Data Centres, where he was president. Now he’s attempting to challenge the entire industry at Montreal-based Root Data Center. “We think it should be more agile, more aligned with customers’ changing needs and more energy conscious.”
One of the biggest issues facing companies that use data centres is deployment time. Generally, finding and getting capacity takes 10 to 12 months, but Root Data Center says it can provide customers with the computing power they need within 120 days due to its standardized inventory.
Byers says he will not let Root rest on its laurels, taking a Six Sigma-type approach: there’s almost always a better way to do what the company is doing, and its team strives every day to re-evaluate how it does things and how to improve. He says the goal is to take what they’ve built in Montreal and duplicate it across the country or even internationally, using the US$90 million it secured in financing from Goldman Sachs in October.
Not many companies 12 years into their existence still attract venture-capital buzz, but Montreal-based Lightspeed attracted US$166 million in funding in 2017 from Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and iNovia Capital. One calling card just might be CEO Dax Dasilva’s grandiose vision. “We believe that commerce belongs to everyone,” he says. “From the entrepreneurs who realize their dreams of starting a business to the storefronts and restaurants that project new perspectives onto our streets. Communities are shaped by those businesses.”
To that end, Lightspeed provides a cloud-based point-of-sale and e-commerce solution for independent retailers and restaurants, giving them access to analytics, inventory, sales data and customer profiles that the big chains have.
Dasilva likes to say, “Lightspeed is a company infused with culture as much as code.” He certainly has the support of his staff (call the sales line and ask if you’re talking to someone in the Montreal office, and the rep says, “Our office is earth, and Dax is like a god in the sky.”)
The company, which has an IPO planned for mid-2019, boasts more than 50,000 customers processing over $15 billion in transactions each year. At that rate, perhaps Dasilva is on his way to near-deity status after all. FPM