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How this entrepreneur found a way to take on the AI giants–with synthetic data

For finding a way to compete in AI without having to amass massive amounts of data first, Element AI CEO Jean-Francois Gagné is one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People of 2019.

How this entrepreneur found a way to take on the AI giants–with synthetic data
[Illustration: Artur Tenczyński]
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The AI revolution has been led by a handful of tech giants—think Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft—but Jean-François Gagné‘s Element AI is forging an intrepid path to subvert their dominance. Unlike an Amazon or a Microsoft, startups don’t have ready access to the vast quantities of big data required to train machine-learning algorithms. So Element AI created a clever system for developing algorithms using data the company generates itself through a simulator. “This helps us bootstrap our training process, and then we can fine-tune with the customer’s data and get good performance quickly,” says Gagné, whose clients include the Port of Montreal, in his hometown, which now uses AI to eliminate wait times for truckers arriving to pick up their shipments. In addition, Gagné, whose cofounders include the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio, a living legend among AI researchers, instituted a fellowship program, which allows Element AI to tap the expertise of top university researchers without luring them from academia. The company, founded in 2016, has grown to 525 employees and raised $100 million, and Gagné is looking to bring his approach to AI to the insurance, financial services, and cybersecurity industries.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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