Element AI raises $102M to take on Amazon, Alphabet

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(Bloomberg) -- Element AI, a Canadian artificial intelligence startup backed by one of the field’s leading scientists, raised $102 million in new funding as it seeks to assert itself in an industry quickly being taken over by internet giants such as Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

The Montreal-based company, which counts artificial intelligence pioneer Yoshua Bengio among its founders, received investments in the funding round from venture capital firm Data Collective, Microsoft Ventures, Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp., among others. Element will use the cash to double its workforce to more than 200 by the end of the year and invest in other AI startups with the hopes of bringing their technology into its suite of offerings. The company declined to comment on its valuation.

Element operates somewhat like a consulting firm, working on a small number of large projects for major corporations that want to use AI techniques to help solve their problems, such as designing a new underwriting model for an insurance company. In the future, the company wants to have trained its algorithms to be smart enough that any company can plug their data sets in and have Element pull out useful insights. It’s the same “AI-as-a-service” model that Amazon, Microsoft Corp. and Google are experimenting with.

Going up against the biggest companies of the internet age seems ambitious, but Element believes the market will demand players who only do AI work, whereas the current leaders are all focused on other industries, Chief Executive Officer Jean-Francois Gagne said in an interview.

“There’s no true neutral player really going at this, trying to provide wide access to cutting-edge AI,” Gagne said. “We’re really trying to be that player.”

Part of the $102 million will be spent on making as many as 50 investments in other AI startups over the next two years, Gagne said. The plan is to build a network of AI companies that can work together, sharing data and passing business to one another in a bid to beef up Element’s offerings, he said. Element also has its own research team run by Bengio that will forge ahead on basic science, which will give AI the ability to do increasingly complex tasks.

“There’s a lot of science yet to be figured out,” Gagne said.

Gagne said the eventual goal is to take Element public, which could happen in about five years. Until then, work needs to continue on basic science as well as building bigger and better data sets before the target of a full artificial intelligence-as-a-service platform is realized.

“You need to reach a critical mass for this to make sense for everybody,” Gagne said.

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