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Billionaire power couple give $75M for Canadian AI push

(Bloomberg) --Canada’s billionaire power couple, Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman, have donated C$100 million ($75 million) to the University of Toronto for an artificial intelligence complex.

The gift, from the duo behind private-equity firm Onex Corp. and Indigo Books & Music Inc., is the largest in the university’s history and biggest for Canada’s technology sector, said the academic institution. It will be used to build the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre starting this year.

“You’ve seen companies like Uber and Google and so many others starting to make real commitments to Toronto, and this is drawing people from around the world to come to Toronto to be part of this,” Schwartz, Onex’s founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview at Indigo’s headquarters in the city. “That legacy is going to last for a long time.”

The 750,000 square-foot facility will house AI scientists and biomedical experts, as well as an entrepreneurship network and student and faculty-led start-ups. The donation will also fund the creation of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society, which will research the ethical and societal implications of AI and emerging technologies.

The new building will help woo talent to a university that’s already bolstered by AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, especially with the U.S. looking less attractive for academics and scientists, said Reisman, Indigo’s founder and CEO.

“You get the right people at the right time with the right motivation,” Reisman said. “And we have the chance to accelerate that."

Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman.jpg
Heather Reisman, founder and chief executive officer of Indigo Books & Music Inc., left, and Gerry Schwartz, founder and chief executive officer of Onex Corp., stand for a photograph at the Indigo Books & Music headquarters in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Canada's billionaire power couple, Reisman and Schwartz, have donated C$100 million ($75 million) to the University of Toronto for an artificial intelligence complex. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg

While the U.S. has clamped down on high-tech visas, Canada posted its biggest surge in immigration in more than a century last year. It has sped up the processing of visas for high-tech workers and has seen a jump in students coming into the country from abroad.

The complex at College Street and Queen’s Park will include a 12-story tower for the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Schwartz Reisman Institute, and a 20-story tower for research labs in areas including regenerative medicine and genetics.

The donation exceeded the university’s hopes and was “critical" in making the project a reality, university President Meric Gertler said in an interview. The facility had been in planning since 2017.

“We were frankly just blown away by the news," Gertler said.

The gift lets the university contribute to technological advances while accounting for societal impacts, he said. “When you look at the pervasive impact on AI and machine learning, there is cause for excitement and cause for some concern," he said.

The donation was made through The Gerald Schwartz & Heather Reisman Foundation.

Schwartz is worth at least $1.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.