A Toronto artificial intelligence startup led by a former Facebook Inc. executive has added several North American tech heavyweights as advisers and backers.
Integrate.ai, founded earlier this year by Steve Irvine – Facebook's former marketing-partner program head – has created an advisory board that includes Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein; Tesla's director of growth Praveen Arichandran; ex-Facebook Canada managing director Jordan Banks; Mike Shaver, a general partner with venture capital firm Real Ventures and past Silicon Valley executive; former McKinsey & Co. technology practice leader David Court; and Cornell University professor Helen Nissenbaum, an expert in digital privacy issues.
Real Ventures, one of the most active investors in Canadian AI startups, also led a $4.6-million (U.S.) financing round that saw Integrate's new advisers, employees and initial financier Georgian Partners also invest. "It's a strong signal to the market when you get a group like this participating; it's a symbol of validation that you're on the right track," said Mr. Irvine, who added Integrate would likely seek another financing round in the "deca-mililons" of dollars in early 2018.
Integrate has quickly emerged as one of the most notable startups from Canada's flourishing AI scene, established thanks to the groundbreaking work of academics Yoshua Bengio of University of Montreal, Geoffrey Hinton at University of Toronto and Rich Sutton at University of Alberta. Their efforts to get machines to learn, think and predict in ways similar to humans has led to significant breakthroughs in recent years – and made the three and their graduate students some of the world's most sought-after technologists, pursued by the likes of Google, Facebook and Uber.
Likewise, Canadian-born Mr. Irvine identified Toronto as the best place to start an AI company. Integrate started with a $5-million investment from Georgian – which typically backs later-stage companies – and recruited some high-profile executives including Airbnb Inc.'s former Canada territory manager Jason Silver and Kathryn Hume, former president of New York-based Fast Forward Labs.
The idea behind Integrate is to develop an AI platform that Fortune 500 firms can use to marry their troves of customer data with giant data sets available from consumer Internet companies. The technology would then learn from customer interactions to make the corporations' offerings more tailored, effective and personalized – providing established companies with a previously unavailable level of sophistication that tech giants such as Google and Facebook deploy.
"He's taking a lot more of a practical approach to AI" than others, said Mr. Finkelstein, a much sought-after startup investor and adviser who hadn't previously invested in the AI space. "He wants to make companies and people smarter, but he also wants them to monetize those smarts. That was compelling to me."
Mr. Irvine said Integrate has been working with five corporate customers in the fields of banking, insurance, automotive, online gaming and media, and entertainment. They are using an early-stage version of the technology and are generating promising results. He declined to name his customers, but said one is an automotive company using Integrate technology to more effectively retain customers who are coming to the end of car leases by predicting what kind of messaging and marketing would be most appealing to them – "so you start from a place where the customer feels understood and what you're offering them is relevant, versus starting from scratch when they walk back into the dealership."
Mr. Irvine said he hopes the platform will be widely available as a subscription software offering by the end of 2018.