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Raquel Urtasun, an AI scientist and professor at the University of Toronto, has raised US$83.5-million for her three-month-old self-driving technology startup, one of the largest inaugural venture financings of a woman-led Canadian startup.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

One of the world’s leading autonomous vehicle researchers, University of Toronto computer science professor Raquel Urtasun, has raised US$83.5-million for her three-month-old self-driving technology startup, one of the largest inaugural venture financings of a woman-led Canadian startup.

Silicon Valley financier Khosla Ventures is leading the funding of Dr. Urtasun’s Waabi Innovation Inc., which is also backed by 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC Capital’s Women in Technology Venture Fund and artificial intelligence stars Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel and Sanja Fidler. Dr. Urtasun’s ex-employer Uber Technologies Inc., and Aurora Innovation Inc., the company that bought Uber’s autonomous vehicle unit where she worked as chief scientist, are also investing.

It’s one of the largest early financings of a Canadian AI startup, following now defunct Element AI Inc.’s $102-million venture capital raise in 2017 when investors were piling into the sector. But while Element AI lacked a strategy and failed to develop successful products, Dr. Urtasun has a specific goal: to build on years of her expertise to develop the software brain of self-driving vehicles.

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She’s also impressed investors with a differentiated strategy. Dr. Urtasun plans to build a system that teaches itself to drive in any condition and scenario within a simulated environment using AI techniques including deep learning, probabilistic inference and complex optimization. The system would eventually be subject to real-life road tests. But the synthetic build-out will advance Waabi’s technology in a faster, cheaper and safer way than other approaches that require heavy capital, much real-world drive testing and tinkering, she said.

“With a simulator you can test at scale,” Dr. Urtasun said in an interview. “If we see things we haven’t captured fully on a simulator, we just have more simulation. Your reliance on [real] driving is much smaller so you can make progress much faster.”

Khosla Ventures managing director Sven Strohband said other self-driving programs “make a lot of progress” initially before bogging down in complexity. “Self-driving is not a solved problem … and one of the dominant things holding it back is creating a vehicle that is reliable enough to serve in most markets. We need to find a way where we don’t slow down development speed. [Waabi is taking] the right approach.”

Dr. Urtasun, who several investors have referred to as a “rock star” of AI, is one of a slew of top Canadian-based AI researchers to join foreign tech giants in the past decade. After a four-year stint with Uber in Toronto that ended in February, she is steadfast in her desire to build a stand-alone Canadian company. “I want to make Toronto and Canada a leader in self-driving technology,” said the 45-year-old native of Pamplona, Spain, and permanent resident of Canada.

Before moving to U of T in 2014, Dr. Urtasun was an assistant professor with the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago. Like the other giants of the AI field, Dr. Urtasun made a conscious decision to leave the United States for what she felt was a more equitable environment in Canada after being struck by the racial inequality and lack of opportunities there. “That’s why I’m here,” she said. “It is very important [to build Waabi in Canada]. I love this country.”

Jordan Jacobs, a co-founder of Toronto’s Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence with Dr. Urtasun, and managing director with Radical Ventures, said her decision to start Waabi “is a huge moment. This is technology that will literally change the entire world. If she’s the one who solves it – and she’s one of the very few people on Earth who might – one of the most important industries in the world based in Canada.”

Waabi’s funding comes six months after Uber agreed to sell its driverless car division to Aurora, part of a sweep of consolidation among global players attempting to develop vehicles that can think and drive for themselves. More than half of Waabi’s 40-plus person team followed Dr. Urtasun from Uber.

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“Her ability to attract top talent and a dedication to building the technology is super important and something we wanted to make sure we were comfortable with,” said Michelle Scarborough, managing partner, strategic investments with the BDC Women in Tech fund.

Self-driving vehicles are still years from reaching commercialization and rolling down public roads, and could face hurdles in satisfying regulators and standards councils, and winning over the general public. But Mr. Strohband said he believes that “if we can create cars that surpass human-level driving and we can prove we can do that, acceptance will follow.”

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