Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia back Element AI in $102m Series A round

The startup, co-founded by one of deep learning's 'founding fathers', will use the funds for team, product, and geographical expansion, as well as a series of acquisitions.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Canadian artificial intelligence startup Element AI has announced that it has raised $102 million in a Series A round led by San Francisco-based venture capital firm Data Collective.

Other investors in the round include Development Bank of Canada, Fidelity Investments Canada, Hanwha Investment, Intel Capital, Microsoft Ventures, National Bank of Canada, Nvidia, Real Ventures, and global wealth funds.

The eight-month old Montreal-based startup has previously raised capital from Microsoft, Tencent, and Hanwha, though it has not revealed how much.

Element AI said the latest funding will be used for investment in 250 new employees from Canada's high-tech sector, large scale AI projects, and the opening of offices in Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The office in Singapore will serve as a regional hub for Southeast Asia.

The startup -- which was co-founded last October by machine learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, and entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados -- also plans on using the funds to make a series of startup acquisitions.

Element AI claims that it has developed a "unique, non-exploitative model of academic cooperation" with the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms that has been replicated at other institutions.

At present, Element AI operates like a consulting firm in that it helps organisations with limited AI experience deploy AI capabilities quickly without needing to build a dedicated internal team.

"Artificial Intelligence is a 'must have' capability for global companies," Element AI CEO Gagné said in a statement. "Without it, they are competitively impaired if not at grave risk of being obsoleted in place."

In the future, the startup said its AI algorithms will be intelligent enough that any organisation will be able to simply plug in their datasets to generate insights.

Now that AI is no longer the domain of tech giants such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft, Element AI said it wants to assert itself in the industry and enable customers to put AI into the backbone of their cybersecurity, fintech, logistics, and transportation products that generate a lot of data.

"The most serious problems facing global industry and government today involve too much complex and rapidly changing data for the cognitive capacity of even large numbers of human experts working together," DCVC managing partner Matt Ocko said in a statement.

"These groups -- and the customers and citizens they serve -- need intelligent systems that can work in concert with them to field that scale and complexity."

Element AI's ambitions are reminiscent of the work being done by Boston-based automated machine learning company DataRobot, which has raised $111 million, with "significant" additional funding expected in the second close of the round.

Chris Devaney, COO at DataRobot told ZDNet previously that a data scientist would typically look at a set of data, prepare that data, and then train a predictive model -- a process that can take weeks or even months. Whereas with DataRobot, users upload their data, select their target variables, and the platform "automates, trains, and evaluates".

Element AI's strategic investors such as Nvidia also fit into parts of Element AI's value proposition.

"Element AI will benefit by continuing to leverage Nvidia's high performance GPUs and software at large scale to solve some of the world's most challenging issues," Jeff Herbst, VP of business development at Nvidia, said in a statement.

Other investors such as South Korean conglomerate Hanwha are also customers.

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