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Toronto startup Integrate.AI scores big-league executive hires

Steve Irvine, Founder & CEO at Integrate.AI, poses for a picture in Toronto, Saturday February 4, 2017.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

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A well-funded Toronto artificial-intelligence startup founded by a former Facebook Inc. executive has snagged three marquee hires.

Integrate.AI, founded earlier this year by Steve Irvine, Facebook's former marketing-partner program head, has hired Jason Silver, Airbnb Inc.'s Toronto-based territory manager for Canada, the Midwest and eastern United States; Kathryn Hume, former president of New York-based Fast Forward Labs, an artificial-intelligence consultancy to Fortune-500 companies; and Tyler Schnoebelen, a Silicon Valley-based AI and user-experience veteran and linguistics scholar who has written papers on emoticons.

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The Canadian-born Mr. Silver will be Integrate's chief operating officer, while Americans Ms. Hume and Mr. Schnoebelen will serve as vice-president, product and strategy, and principal product manager, respectively.

'We're trying to build a global company that happens to be in Canada," said Mr. Irvine, who has secured $5-million in early-stage financing from Georgian Partners, a top-ranked Toronto venture-capital firm that usually backs later-stage companies. "I hope people see … that Integrate is a team of superstars and the quality of talent is at a level we just don't usually see in startups.

"Everybody we've hired without exception has had two to three offers on the table," he said, including Mr. Silver, who turned down a promotion and transfer to Airbnb's San Francisco headquarters to join Integrate.

Mr. Silver, 31, a biomedical engineer who joined Airbnb two years ago, said he was drawn to work for a company that would establish Toronto as "a globally relevant place for startups. I see a lot of startups, and Integrate really felt like the first I've seen in a really long time that I think stands a very strong chance to be … on the global stage."

Toronto has emerged as a global AI hot spot in the past five years – thanks to the pioneering work by University of Toronto "deep learning" professor Geoffrey Hinton – which has helped spark a global gold rush here and elsewhere as Google (now Mr. Hinton's employer), Microsoft and other tech giants have been snapping up researchers and startups focused on AI. Self-teaching algorithms are expected to transform business in the years ahead; AI already factors into Google searches, user suggestions from the likes of Inc., Netflix Inc. and Facebook, and is the cornerstone of autonomous-car technology.

Mr. Irvine left Silicon Valley for his native Toronto last year, figuring the city was the best place to start an AI firm. His idea was to develop an AI platform that Fortune-500 corporations could use to marry their vast troves of customer data with giant data sets available from consumer Internet companies. The technology could then learn from data generated by customer interactions, and make the corporations' offerings more tailored, effective and personalized over time.

Ms. Hume, 33, said she turned down offers from Google and other software firms for the Integrate position because she found Mr. Irvine's approach to commercializing AI to be "compelling … the name 'Integrate' is intended to show we're going to integrate information from the social-media world and large enterprises. That's powerful and unique … there's a gulf between those two aspects that we're trying to bridge."

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Mr. Schnoebelen, 40, who was introduced to Mr. Irvine by Jason Brenier, a Georgian executive and former colleague at another Silicon Valley startup, described his new position as a "dreamier dream job" than his previous position as a product manager with a Bay Area mobile-gaming company. He will remain in the Valley to manage the firm's relationships with the region's tech giants.

It's still early days for Integrate, which has 10 employees and hasn't yet hired a chief technology officer or developed its first product. Mr. Irvine said he hoped to hire his core team of 25 people within six weeks and to develop the first version of its platform by year's end.

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