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A crowdsourcing startup from the heart of the Kootenays has used artificial intelligence in survey software designed to help leaders across North America better understand organizations from school districts to Fortune 500 companies. On Thursday, the company will announce it has raised $20-million in venture funding to expand within and beyond North America.

Fulcrum Management Solutions Inc., which is headquartered in Rossland, B.C., has been developing the Thoughtexchange software service over the past decade. It raised more than $10-million in previous financing rounds and has grown to 140 employees. Its surveys are designed to allow employers and public-service leaders to ask their employees and constituents the kind of open-ended questions used in focus groups, and apply artificial intelligence (AI) to parse the responses and suggest ways to solve organizational problems.

The funding round was led by Toronto’s Information Venture Partners alongside Seattle’s Voyager Capital and returning investor Yaletown Partners Inc. of Vancouver. The company plans to use the capital to boost its sales staff, expand into Europe and get its service to more corporate leaders.

“I like to call it the disruption of the focus group,” co-founder and chief executive officer Dave MacLeod said in a phone interview as he walked down a snowy Rossland road. “It’s technology coming in and saying, 'Why don’t we talk to 100, or 10,000, or 100,000 people?”

Superintendents in nearly 500 school districts across North America have used Thoughtexchange to survey parents on school-related issues, and Mr. MacLeod hopes the company can expand its roster of corporate clients to the same number next year.

Organizations can use Thoughtexchange surveys to ask open-ended questions, letting their constituents – such as parents or employees – respond and explain why the idea they have offered is important to them. The respondents are then presented with responses from other people taking the survey and asked to assign them ratings on a scale. Using the AI techniques of machine learning and natural language processing, the software’s algorithms sift out trends.

On a large scale, Mr. MacLeod said, Thoughtexchange helps leaders home in on ideas that are important to people, rather than those that come up first or often.

He likens the situation to a group having drinks at a bar: Everyone might ask for a beer until they hear someone order a margarita and realize they would prefer that. Or, he said, perhaps the initial two ideas might be polarizing – but upon assessing all available options, maybe a round of gin and tonics would bring the group maximum satisfaction.

The company believes school districts can apply this methodology to figure out which improvement projects to pursue. Sales executives could explore which tools would best support their sales staff based on their responses about their clients’ needs. Human resources executives could attempt to determine what makes employees feel the most welcome at a company.

Among the company’s Fortune 500 clients are the insurance provider Allstate Corp. and American Airlines.

“I think there’s magic in it,” said Rob Antoniades, co-founder of lead investor Information Venture Partners. He sees Thoughtexchange as a simple, quick alternative to the lengthy research of consultants or internal task forces. “It’s a unique way to solve a very big problem."

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