The University of Alberta this month launched an investment fund targeting startup ventures that are working to solve challenges while diversifying the province’s economy by providing support for entrepreneurs across the region.
Supported by both private donors and public partners, The U of A Innovation Fund intends to work with startups to mobilize the university’s research expertise and creativity, with a focus on innovation in artificial intelligence, health, energy, and agriculture—all of which are “areas of outstanding research strength at the University of Alberta,” according to university president Bill Flanagan.
Companies chosen by the fund will receive access to networks, financial support, and opportunities to enter new markets, says Sheetal Mehta Walsh, CEO of the fund, who aims to “champion made-in-Alberta successes on a global scale.”
Ventures will receive in-person and online education sessions on business topics such as entrepreneurship and financial literacy, as well as access to the fund’s innovation portal—an online community platform which provides further opportunities to tap information and resources and share ideas.
The first company to tap into this suite of benefits from the Fund is RL Core Technologies, a budding Edmonton-based company that uses an AI-powered approach called reinforcement learning to improve the efficiency and performance of industrial control systems.
RL Core Technologies was cofounded this year by Martha White, who is a researcher at the University of Alberta—an inroad that enabled the fund’s natural first investment.
“We are excited to be the first company chosen for the Innovation Fund,” she stated recently. “As graduate students and then academics at the U of A, the university has given us so much over the years, and we feel part of the team, so it seems natural to take on our venture in this partnership with the university.”
White, who is also involved with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute, says her team’s work is “something ambitious that can have a very high impact.”
The machine-learning technique constantly adapts in real time to deliver significantly better functioning than control parameters that are manually set by engineers, according to White, who has been conducting research alongside her partner Adam.
“The potential applications of the technology are so exciting,” affirms Adam, an assistant professor in U of A’s Faculty of Science. “We envision a scenario where we could plug into control systems across industries, where there is already some level of automation—that could have a huge impact.”
The support offered through the Innovation Fund will be instrumental to propelling their AI research into the marketplace, White says.
Along with expert business development advice, the networking opportunities offered through the fund will be especially valuable to RLCore, according to Martha, who believes that “having strong connections to find implementation partners will help us improve and bring RL into many different sectors.”
Besides making systems more sustainable and energy efficient, AI can make systems more autonomous, Adam says—freeing up operators to focus on less routine, more critical maintenance tasks.
“The more we can do to make something like a water treatment system more autonomous, the more likely it is to work well in a remote community, where an operator may only need to visit periodically,” he said.
Alden Christianson, formerly of Alphabet-powered AI firm DeepMind, is also a cofounder.