Written by Andrew Seale

Heading up Facebook’s global partnerships put Steve Irvine in a lot of boardrooms with rattled Fortune 500 CEOs asking what sea-change was going to disrupt their business. It also meant he was shaking hands with the disruptors.

“It gave me an opportunity to see in all the big hubs around the world – what was happening, what was interesting, what kind of companies were getting traction, how the tech was being used,” says Irvine. For the serial entrepreneur who built two startups in Toronto in the early aughts before joining Facebook in 2010 and moving to Menlo Park, California, it was a dream job, a chance to see where opportunity was on a global basis.

But it didn’t take many conversations to realize the future lied in artificial intelligence; machine learning that could make decisions based on the swath of data already being collected by businesses. Some enterprises just needed more help than others seeing the use-case for AI and implementing it into their organizations.

Unsurprisingly, the entrepreneurial itch came back. But what was surprising to Irvine at the time was where his search for a place to build his new business, Integrate.AI, led him.

“I spoke to the head of Facebook’s AI lab and he (did his) post-doc at the University of Toronto under this guy Geoff Hinton,” says Irvine. He started talking to other AI lab directors in the Valley including Twitter, Microsoft and Uber. All said the same name: Geoff Hinton, a British-born, Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist known for his work on artificial neural networks.

“I thought, how’s it possible that this is happening and I'm unaware of it… I was at an AI leading company,” he says. “I realized not only is University of Toronto one of the best schools, if not the best school in the world for producing these students, but the guy who is known as the godfather of modern AI – Geoff Hinton – still works at U of T.”

It was enough to draw him back to Toronto.

“It was the best place in the world to build the business that I was getting into,” says Irvine. Six months in and he’s still getting reacquainted with an ecosystem fundamentally unrecognizable from the one he left behind more than a decade and a half ago. Integrate.AI has developed its AI-enabled platform capable of identifying patterns that the average business owner might not pick-up on and then turn those into actionable insights.

For instance, one of Integrate.AI’s clients is an automotive company looking to use AI in the leasing sphere. When a client is close to the end of their lease, the platform would use trends they collected (while remaining privacy compliant, adds Irvine) and direct them to another car with features they might be interested in.

“You have a really great experience where you feel totally understood… (like) your needs are taken into account,” he says. “And ultimately that results in more leases for that particular company (and) customers feeling more engaged and connected with the brand than they had previously.”

Therein lies the future, says Irwin – unconstrained AI-powered enterprises with the ability to take advantage of the data the first stages of the internet revolution have made so ubiquitous. Software is par for the old paradigm, the new one will be driven by machine learning capable of identify patterns and making decisions.

“When you're building the way we are with today's technology, you're not constrained by the way software worked… before you would actually build systems in a totally different way,” he says. “(With AI) you tell it the outcome (and) the software figures out the patterns.”

And Irvine is confident Toronto’s rich AI heritage will help pave the way.

“I think you’ll see a couple of us in this current cohort of startups that will pop up like Shopify did and be global leading public companies,” he says. “We really are a world class city.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)