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Toronto’s NewCo Personalizes the Traditional Tech Conference

More than 40 tech companies opened their doors on Thursday for NewCo, the last day of the inaugural Elevate Toronto festival.

A departure from the traditional conference flow, NewCo attendees picked from a roster of budding startups and businesses and travelled across the city to hear from their founders and company leaders.

NewCo is an opportunity for some of Canada’s top technology companies to share their innovative and even groundbreaking work in fields spanning health, artificial intelligence, fintech, retail and more.

It’s impossible to see every offering, but Techvibes visited BlueDot, Element AI, and Ritual yesterday to hear how these vastly different technology companies are shaping their industries.

BlueDot

At St. Michael’s Hospital, BlueDot is using big data analytics and visualization to track and predict the spread of infectious diseases.

From the third floor office, Dr. Kamran Khan shared how BlueDot combines data, predictive modelling and data visualizations to drawing meaning for numbers. Khan’s team of experts in public health and geographic information systems were at the forefront of understanding the risk of Zika virus dispersing in 2015.

“Our work was out before the World Health Organizations announced a global emergency,” said Khan.

BlueDot uses machine learning algorithms to predict in real-time where and when these highly spreadable diseases can occur. Their platform tracks global outbreaks in real-time, doubling as a self-service tool to let anyone gain a better understanding of a disease in a matter of minutes.

“We can give someone early insights into an area before [an infectious disease] is officially confirmed, which can sometimes take weeks or months,” said Khan.

The scientist and infectious disease specialist told the room about BlueDot’s recent partnership with Telus, explaining how BlueDot is looking at using smartphones to collect data and even as a conduit to distribute insights.

The attendees also saw BlueDot’s health companion for travellers dubbed George. The free app gives location-specific data on infectious diseases in the city a traveller is heading to, arming them with information about the disease itself, vaccinations and treatments. These diseases are broken down into three categories: need to know, should know and good to know.

Element AI

Element AI dived into the often complex concept of artificial learning inside the MaRS Discovery District. Headquartered in Montreal, Element AI helps build, design and power AI-first organizations.

A relatively new and misunderstood field in the technology industry, Element AI’s Megh Gupta compared the differences between AI, machine learning and deep learning—and what AI can do for people and businesses.

“AI is a tool, not an architect. People are vital to helping AI achieve greatness,” said Gupta, Element AI’s director of strategy and solutions.

The narrative surrounding AI has recently been dominated by doomsday predictions, even coming from well-known tech luminaries like Elon Musk. When asked where that hysteria stems from, Gupta credited media and Hollywood, but said there is some truth to the need to be responsible when it comes to the application of AI—something Element endorses.

“There are ethical concerns around what AI models are being used for… And we’ve publicly committed that we are going to use AI for good,” he told Techvibes.

“Do I think Musk and those guys have truth to what they are saying? Yes. But do I think Terminator is going to be roaming the earth in ten years? No.”

Gupta also shared that while there has been hype around AI in recent years, finding talent who want to work in the startup field has been a challenge. He said tech giants like Google and Facebook are “throwing boatloads of cash” at machine learning experts and “sucking people” from the academic system.

Nevertheless, Element AI is one of the world’s leading applied AI companies. In fact, the Montreal-based company closed the largest series A globally in AI, securing $102 million USD in new financing this June.

Ritual

Ritual is a platform designed to streamline how customers order food and drinks. CEO Ray Reddy invited 40-odd tech workers and enthusiasts into their Toronto office on Wellington Street to discuss the founding of the company and their very methodic expansion plans.

He posed a question to the audience: “What do you buy every day?” For those who work in large cities, the answer is fairly obvious: coffee and lunch. Reddy used what Google co-founder Larry Page called the “toothbrush test” to help guide Ritual’s vision. If you use it once or twice a day and it improves the quality of your life, it will be successful.

Reddy realized that companies like Uber Eats or JustEat were not really competitors, as they stuck to dinner and were maybe used a couple times a week at most by customers. Ritual wanted to embrace the personality behind having users feel like “regulars,” an inspiration Reddy felt when he visited a bar multiple times in England and had pints of Guinness waiting for him.

“You form a daily habit with lunch and coffee and start from there,” he said. “In that sense small ticket value and high frequency are important.”

Reddy went on to describe that even just being greeted by name after multiple visits or having a little smiley face on your takeout box can be more important than small discounts or rewards. But Ritual still values those experiences too, and a bold claim was offered to those in attendance.

“I think Ritual has the most powerful restaurant loyalty program in the world,” Reddy declared. It might be true, as it’s easy to rack up rewards dollars for things you buy every day.

Reddy also went into details about how Ritual chooses to expand. Sure, they approach restaurants, but they have been seeing a lot of places come to them first, wanting to be a part of the experience. Cities aren’t added all at once either. Neighbourhoods are strategically covered so that the best hotspots are given the attention to detail they need, such as an uptick in orders and even time to create a dedicated Ritual shelf or space.

As the platform continues to expand, more cites will be added, with a focus on U.K. and the rest of Europe coming soon. There may even be reviews and dish ratings integrated, though Reddy notes current models such as Yelp need to be completely reinvented before Ritual will add similar features.

With contributions from Max Greenwood. 

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