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The Royal Bank of Canada will open a Borealis AI lab in Montreal in 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest bank is joining global tech giants in setting up a research lab in Montreal to take advantage of the city's growing artificial intelligence expertise.

The Royal Bank of Canada will open a Borealis AI lab in the new year, joining labs in Toronto and Edmonton. It hopes to have 10 researchers on staff in the first year of operation.

RBC will join Silicon Valley tech heavyweights like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, along with Samsung and other global players that have made a presence in the city.

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"(Montreal) is absolutely one of the hottest places not only in Canada but on earth right now," says Foteini Agrafioti, RBC chief science officer and Borealis AI head.

"It's become very, very attractive with the momentum that they've built."

While the Borealis labs work collaboratively, Agrafioti said the contribution of McGill professor Jackie Cheung as an academic adviser will allow the Montreal lab to focus on his expertise of natural language processing.

Part of RBC's focus is to develop technology to pick up early signs of seemingly disconnected events going on around the world by evaluating social media chatter and news in far-flung countries that could potentially have an impact on North American markets.

Even though heightened activity in Montreal is creating competition for companies looking to lure researchers, Agrafioti is hoping RBC will have home advantage.

"Our hope here is to be adding the voice of one Canadian business that does fundamental research in AI and giving the people the opportunity to create that value through a Canadian company," she said.

The Montreal lab will collaborate with the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms and renowned expert Yoshua Bengio, who has advocated for using AI to create homegrown tech champions that will keep intellectual property within the country.

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Borealis AI, formerly called RBC Research Institute, aims to ensure academic freedom so talented researchers can stay in Canada and develop technologies that benefit the Canadian economy, Agrafioti said.

She said the goal is to make sure "that people are building companies that leverage Canadian intellectual property here in Canada on Canadian soil."

RBC and the Bank of Montreal also announced Tuesday that they are injecting $4-million to the Creative Destruction Lab Montreal, which helps promising startups transition into high-growth companies.

CDL is a partnership between the University of Montreal's HEC business school and the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

The first round of 28 selected applicants, most of which have patents, will receive coaching from experts and investment funds to accelerate their startups to the next stage.

A similar lab in Toronto created more than $1-billion in equity value in the last few years.

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"The CDL-Montreal program represents a stimulant challenge not only for our startup companies but also for all the partners involved in this innovative project," stated Fil Papich, co-head of BMO Capital Markets in Quebec.

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