February’s federal budget delivered a quantum leap in funding for Ontario’s machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) industry, with Ottawa and Ontario each committing $50 million to Toronto’s Vector Institute.
The dollars dedicated came from the $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which is making investments in centres of expertise in Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto-Waterloo.
So far B.C. has been left out of the country’s strategy, and local AI entrepreneurs like Justin Long are worried about what the province’s already small talent pool spells for the future.
“The East Coast is receiving a lot of that money … [because] they have a lot more funding for researchers and universities,” said Long, CEO of AI-powered dating app Bernie.
“Companies like Google [Nasdaq:GOOG], Facebook [Nasdaq:FB], Microsoft [Nasdaq:MSFT] and IBM [NYSE: IBM] snapped up these [B.C.] researchers.
“They came in, they hired all of them, they relocated them to the south or they relocated them to their other Canadian offices.”
For the local AI talent pool to deepen in the long term, Long hopes the next provincial government fulfills BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark’s March pledge to increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) university graduates by 1,000 seats a year.
In the short term, he’s counting on Ottawa’s promise to make immigration easier for skilled workers beginning later this spring to attract more talent to Vancouver’s AI ecosystem.
B.C. lost 299 software professionals (mainly to the United States) between January 2016 and January 2017, according to a report from Vancouver’s Talentful Technology Inc., a recruitment company focused on the AI sector.
Meanwhile, the Business Development Bank of Canada is trying to bring talent into the country.
It partnered with three private-sector companies in January to fund the $5 million NextAI program, a global tech accelerator aimed at attracting international AI talent.
“It’s about bringing some teams to Canada that will focus as a cohort on developing and starting new companies in that space,” BDC Capital executive vice-president Jerome Nycz told Business in Vancouver.
While BDC Capital has invested in B.C. firms specializing in AI such as Mobify, Bit Stew and Trulioo, NextAI will be based in Toronto.
But Long said that even if immigration becomes easier for foreign AI specialists, many might balk at moving to B.C. when they examine pay rates.
The Talentful report found compensation for a junior professional averaged $61,809 in Vancouver compared with $102,578 in Seattle. And senior professionals in Seattle had average earnings double those of a Vancouver senior professional: $204,950 versus $100,627.
But BC Tech Association CEO Bill Tam said the tech sector has had “a steady rise” in pay levels over the past few years.
He said that as more anchor companies like Microsoft and Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) set up shop in Vancouver, compensation levels will likely become more competitive.
“It’s clearly not there yet,” he said.
In the meantime, the BC Tech Association’s HyperGrowth accelerator program is providing local AI startups like AIDA Technologies with mentorship from anchor companies already investing heavily in machine learning.
Vancouver-based BuildDirect, often described as the Amazon of construction supplies, is among the companies providing mentorship at HyperGrowth.
The company began collecting immense amounts of data about supply chains and customer needs in 2008 before launching an AI-focused division about three years ago.
“We’re all in on AI and machine learning. It’s at the core and the foundation of the platform we’re building,” said Joe Thompson, BuildDirect’s vice-president of marketing.
He acknowledged the region’s AI talent pool can be a challenge, but so far BuildDirect has been able to build a team based in Vancouver without relying too heavily on satellite offices. He said the company is committed to staffing “as much as possible” in Vancouver and plans to unveil more about its AI agenda later this year.
“This will be one of the most important industries to be a part of and to own for the next five, 10 years and beyond.”@reporton