Day one of the mesh conference in Calgary focused on digital transformation and innovation, looking at what’s coming next, and how we get there.
Unlike many tech events where the focus can get way into the digital weeds or frame everything around the tech of the day (ChatGPT, anyone?) the real prize at mesh was the potential impact of digital transformation on people.
For the mesh brand, the Calgary conference marks its return after a lengthy hiatus. The proudly PowerPoint-free conference originally launched in Toronto in 2005 and ran for 10 years.
It featured speakers, conversations, and debates at the nexus of four areas: business, marketing, media, and society. This was the first event in nearly a decade and brings a renewed focus on digital transformation in the private and public sectors, and society as a whole.
Day one in Calgary featured panels with tech leaders in both startups and enterprises, fireside chats with technology and innovation industry leaders, an innovation showcase, and spirited discussions amongst attendees and speakers.
Here are three key ideas that ran through day one of mesh Calgary:
1. Tackling big problems and pursuing big opportunities: ‘meshies’ show their ambition
Ambition was a key theme throughout day one. While there were nods to the virtues of incremental innovation, attendees were animated mostly by big problems, big challenges, and big opportunities.
In the kickoff panel on the state of innovation in Canada, Alison Sunstrum, the CEO of CNSRV-X Inc. (Conserve X), which researches and applies emerging technology in agriculture, laid out the need for bold action. She noted that global problems like food insecurity and climate change are problems that only innovation can solve and that failure to do so would be disastrous.
She also put a challenge to Canada to grow its innovative capacity:
“We have to become more tech-savvy and more tech-enabled to become a truly innovative country. Canada has had decades of innovation agendas, but we’re not getting ahead. We are at the bottom of our peer group [in the OECD]. We must become an innovation nation”
Others were just as focused on the possibilities as the problems.
In her fireside conversation, Kirstine Stewart, Twitter’s former VP Media for North America, looked back on the early years of the social network. Back then, the platform’s role in galvanizing the Arab Spring suggested the possibilities of democratizing communication and access to information. And with the Twitter brand now staggering under new leadership, Stewart looked ahead to what might supplant the big social networks.
Eventually, possibly, maybe.
“It’s really hard to displace the current social media big four,” she said. “Twitter users came up with the idea of retweets and quote tweets. That creates a sense of ownership with users that isn’t possible with some of these other new platforms. But I do think there’s an opportunity for a whole new type of social platform.”
Steward also said there’s an inherent interest in data being shared and there’s a place for a new social platform to be conceived of in a way that hasn’t been done before.
2. Breaking down the silos between sectors and organizations
In a panel titled ‘Catalysts for Change,’ which was ostensibly focused on digital transformation in the non-profit and public sectors, much of the talk was about the private sector.
“We have a fundamental societal problem where we say we make money over here and we do good over here and never the twain shall meet,” said Charles Buchanan, Founder and CEO of Technology Helps, which provides technology services to nonprofits and social good organizations.
Buchanan did not hold back.
“We pretend that we give a fuck about the vulnerable — and yet making money should be done in one silo, while non-profits should be run by volunteers.”
Picking up on that framing of the challenges in the sector, panelist Alison Pidskalny of Pixelated Ventures suggested that nonprofits needed to “go beyond the grant” and take a page out of the private sector book to grow their revenue streams.
“There comes a point for most non-profits when they need to figure out other income streams, besides funding,” said Pidskalny. “That’s where digital transformation comes in. You can use digital technology to monetize what you already do well and create innovative new revenue streams.”
This theme of breaking down silos between sectors and organizations recurred throughout the day, with many echoing its potential catalytic role in transformation.
“We cannot afford siloed thinking,” said Leta LaRush, Director of Business Development and Innovation at BASF Canada, noting her company is looking for more opportunities to partner with startups from a variety of tech backgrounds.
In fact, speakers, panelists, and hallway conversations all seemed to come back around to the need for all societal stakeholders to partner more effectively, share information more efficiently, and innovate more quickly.
“The energy at mesh is different than any other conference,” said attendee Sarah Boutron of Computer Modelling Group (CMG). “Many people get caught up in silos, and the conversations and connections at mesh facilitated brilliant and relevant discussion across industries.”
Boutron works in the energy industry and her company recently held a roundtable discussion with leaders from diverse backgrounds. She said her big takeaway from that initiative was how important sharing ideas is to driving successful outcomes for all, and she came to mesh to connect, share and be inspired by other industry leaders.
“We all need to look beyond our inner circle to the periphery, and beyond. It’s there that the meshing of ideas can lead to the greatest impact.”
3. Unlocking transformative innovation starts with inclusivity – and there’s still much work to do
“To elevate our global economy, we need to enable all cultures and people to participate, and private companies need to be part of making this happen,” said panelist Amy Peck, Founder & CEO of AR/VR strategy & consulting firm EndeavorXR.
This statement, so agreeable and obvious on its face, takes on a sharper edge when you consider how many founders at mesh alone started their businesses because talented people are locked out or underrepresented in the innovation ecosystem by systemic barriers.
Three notable examples:
- April Hicke, Co-Founder and CGO at Toast, abandoned her career climbing the corporate ladder to start Toast, a collective designed to support women in technology. She’s now focused on ‘scaling deep’ and changing the hearts and minds of people so they consistently hire more diversely.
- Sean Crump, who became disabled at age 19, is on a mission to improve the social and economic inclusion of people living with disabilities with his company Included By Design. It specializes in consulting and certifying spaces as accessible locations.
- Mark Fairbanks runs Islands of Brilliance, an organization using art, creativity, and creative technologies to spark self-confidence, encourage independence, and build pathways to employment for autistic individuals.
Fairbanks was featured in a fireside conversation, the final session of mesh Calgary day one. When his son Harry was identified as autistic at age 3, his neurologist said Harry probably wouldn’t go to college. Harry went through the Islands of Brilliance program, graduated with an honours graphic design degree, and now works in his field.
And while it’s obviously not solely on Harry to address climate change, food insecurity, bad actors in the social media space, hiring biases, data silos, non-profit funding, or any of our other big challenges, because of his father’s work, he’s one more person working somewhere inside our overall societal innovation ecosystem.
In case you missed the event, the next mesh takes place in Toronto in November (dates to be announced), and it’s back in its new permanent home in Calgary in June, 2024.
Where will AI go next?￼
This year’s Collision conference featured a wide range of buzzy AI solutions — both B2B and for consumers.
The buzzy topic of AI was not in short supply at this year’s annual Collision conference in Toronto. The list of applications using the technology was seemingly endless — from both the presenters and exhibitors.
It comes at a unique time, as analysis of the industry reveals that we’ve crossed into the “era of deployment.” At the same time, it’s imperative that we think critically and ask questions about said deployment.
In June, Research and Markets revealed a study demonstrating how the AI industry has experienced immense expansion and maturation in recent years, from a $62B market in 2020, to projections saying 40% growth annually until 2026.
Meanwhile, the 2023 AI Index, an independent initiative at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), reports that:
- AI systems can both have a large carbon footprint (when training), and be “used to optimize energy use”
- Incidents of AI misuse is “rapidly” on the rise. As the Stanford team explains, ‘more AI, more problems”
- There was a 27% decrease in Global AI private investment (year-over-year) from 2021 to 2022. At the same time, over the last decade, investment has increased — in 2022, it was 18 times greater than in 2013.
- Companies that have adopted AI are pulling ahead, while the proportion of those adopting AI has actually plateaued.
- Only 35% of Americans surveyed agree that “products and services using AI had more benefits than drawbacks,” compared to 78% of Chinese respondents, 76% from Saudi Arabia, and 71% from India.
It seems clear that the sector is at something of a crossroads.
DX Journal spoke to four AI startups at Collision, covering areas like filing taxes, DIY home and appliance repair, game building, and building work teams — all showing how AI can have an impact both at home and the workplace.
DIY home maintenance, with a little AI help
Collision presenter Eradj Khaidarov, Chief Technology Officer of IrisCX, spoke on the topic of “Delivering a more human experience through visual intelligence and AI.” He transitioned from twenty years in the video conferencing field to IrisCX, a video-based troubleshooting app that helps users with DIY repair. Anything from appliances to home devices, AI determines the make, model, problem, and spits out possible solutions.
“All of us hate dealing with manuals from 10 years ago and only keep them around when we truly need them — and we also hate dealing with YouTube videos that may not necessarily answer all our questions,” he explained. “The interactions with our product can help you get to an answer faster, without having someone come to your home. It’s just the little bit of guidance that can help us solve a problem quickly and efficiently.”
AI allows the app to summarize certain markers in the conversation, to formulate what was truly the problem.
Let AI help find your next hire
Meanwhile, Raphael Ouzan, co-founder & CEO of A.Team, wants AI to revolutionize how people build teams.
Prior to helping found the startup, he served in the Israeli military for five years in cyberwarfare and cryptology, “finding the power-people you could work with, even in impossible missions.”
Later, he built teams as he built start-ups, and realized he wanted to build something that would enable anyone to find the right teammate — or teammates — to accomplish a greater goal.
When a user logs in to A.Team, they will do a search for their preferred skill and industry, while the AI will detect keywords, suggesting the relevant team that matches the work desired.
“I would describe it as a platform that enables the formation, management, and scaling of elite tech teams that drive massive change for companies,” he said.
“You can look at it like a high-end UpWork, for teams.”
A.Team has raised $55 million, funded by the likes of rapper Jay-Z, and has advisors that include Fiverr founder Shai Wininger and former UpWork CEO Stephane Kasriel.
Creativity + AI
One very popular area where AI is being leveraged is for imagery, game creation, and video creation.
Unity offers tools and solutions for game developers, industrial customers, and professional artists. And as Chief Marketing Officer Carol Carpenter explains, “what we are seeing is that every pixel, every piece of art, every frame will be compacted on the creative side by AI.”
“If you draw two frames, then ask: ‘hey, draw ten more for me like this.’ Or, I want a scene in a digital twin or game, with snowing mountains. AI can offer some art to choose from.”
One of their newest products, Unity Muse, launched during Collision. As Carpenter describes, it “has a feel like ChatGPT, where programmers can type in an image request, and either see it animated or developed on-demand.”
For example, the user could input the text: “Ferrari driving down a steep hill,” and what would pop out would be AI’s creation based on the request. The user could decide to keep it as a standalone graphic, or instruct Unity Muse to make the image animate.
From there, the sky’s the limit, although a human hand — and creativity — will always play a part.
To build a game today with real time 3D, she explains, what’s required is experience and coding knowledge. “It’s not something you just pick up and do easily.”
With Unity, there’s an “ability to use natural language to create, to accelerate the process,” said Carpenter. “We still very much believe the creator needs to have ideas; they need to have the spark of imagination. AI is good for getting started or a prototype. Then there needs to be polish and human element of judgment.”
Your taxes, automated
Many believe that the best place to deploy AI is for truly mundane tasks that make sense to automate.
In that vein, Ben Borodach and his team have brought it to tax filing.
April is touted as the first AI-powered tax system that both optimizes and files taxes, via a large language model and proprietary generative AI that reads tax law.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an Uber driver, an e-commerce seller, or a family with two jobs, you still get the same experience,” explained the co-founder and CEO. “A personalized leveraging of AI, where we serve up 1.2 septillion unique paths to filing returns. So every single person gets a customized flow for their specific experience.”
There are, Borodach explained, thousands of possible tax questions across federal, state, and local jurisdictions that a taxpayer could be asked. Each time the user answers a question, the program learns more about the user.
As AI technologies evolve, its growth is poised to reshape virtually every field it touches.
It is already entering our lives in an accessible, individualized way, catering to the unique needs of each user. From healthcare and education to finance and entertainment, its capabilities will soon permeate unexpected areas, transforming our lives in profound ways.
Dave is a journalist whose work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets around the world, including BBC, National Post, Washington Times, Globe and Mail, New York Times, Baltimore Sun.
Global innovation comes to Collision
1,727 startups and partners from 76 countries descended on Toronto for one of the world’s largest tech events.
Hoping to collide with angels and investors, nearly two thousands startups and partners from 76 countries and thirty industries convened at Collision in Toronto.
For attendees, it was a chance to take a peek at the future of tech. For exhibitors and startups, an all-access pass to global players, all under one roof. Indeed, floor exhibitors spanned the globe: Italy, Kosovo, Portugal, South Korea, and more.
The worldwide innovation and startup scene has had a rollercoaster few years. 2021 saw next-level growth, a trend that continued into 2022, until conflict and an energy crisis in Europe, supply-chain disruptions, layoffs, and inflation meant a period of instability. This has lasted into 2023, though at this midpoint of the year, there’s been an upswing.
According to Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2023 — generated from analysis of data from 3.5 million startups across 290 global ecosystems — VC funding is still down, although gaming, blockchain, and fintech all saw increases. The AI and Big Data sub-sector has the highest number of total VC deals, with 28% of the global share.
Entrepreneurs from around the world are seizing opportunities to disrupt industries, solve pressing challenges, and create innovative solutions. Collision is just one place to help make that happen.
Here’s a look at four countries that came to town.
Kosovo’s rapid growth
At just fifteen years old, the small Balkan nation of Kosovo came to Collision hoping to position itself as a burgeoning tech incubator — with a workforce less costly than most others in Europe.
Representing the country were Sedat Burrniku, Toronto’s Consul of Kosovo, and Fatos Idrizi from Pristina-based Kreahub, a company that mainly does web design, web development, branding, and digital marketing. Tenton, a software development company from Kosovo, was also part of the team.
“Kosovo is a young country. It has a lot of potential in IT, among other fields and concepts. So, we would like to introduce our companies to the rest of the world,” Idrizi said, adding that his country has one of the highest Internet user rates in Europe, at 96.4% among a population of nearly two million.
One of their biggest success stories was a made-in-Kosovo project dubbed “NatEv Explorer,” that detects natural disasters and catastrophes around the world, and won the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in 2015.
“Kreahub is a young company with potential ahead,” explained Idrizi. “It is a first year for us. We finished, already, four projects in the US, one in Germany, and one in Switzerland. So, there is a huge market ahead. Also, today, I got a call for another project in the US.”
Last year, Forbes featured an op-ed by Fatos Ameti, CEO of the Kosovo-based Sonnect, outlining the country as a “one to watch” in the tech and IT industries. He noted that the information/communications tech ecosystem, “is extensive, with numerous labs, innovation centers and workspaces… that provide startups with mentoring, financing, incubation, training and co-working spaces.”
Portugal: small but mighty
“Portugal is not a very big country, and Canada is a very big market, and a way to enter a greater market – which is North American. So, there are a lot of startups looking for greater investments or to scale to different markets,” she said.
“We have a lot of different verticals that are growing strong in Lisbon. We have Web3. We are also investing in fintech, impact, mobility is also strong,” she said, adding that startups in Lisbon are especially focused on health tech, sports tech, and gaming.
To date, she said Lisbon boasts seven unicorns.
“The companies that want to scale to high levels of investment have to leave the country. What we are doing is trying to change this situation, bringing more investors to Portugal,” she said.
“It happens all the time that when they learn what is going on there, hear the pitches, they get interested. The trick is to let him hear. Sometimes it’s hard for investors to have that space, but when they do have that space, the opportunities are there.”
While Rome and Milan both have active startup ecosystems, Startup Genome’s report lists Turin as one of the top 35 European ecosystems for affordable talent. With over 110k students, it’s easy to see why. An in-the-works Italy Digital Nomad Visa will also boost numbers to both the country and region. The northern city is specifically cultivating growth in the areas of Smart Cities, space technology, and AI, Big Data, and analytics.
And in the fintech space, Mara Vendramin — founder and CEO of My Money — was at Collision’s Italy pavilion showing off a completely biometric form of handheld payment device that uses a fingerprint instead of a plastic debit/credit card — just one of the country’s 12,000+ startups.
“Most importantly, it will democratize payment for everyone. Because today, the latest technology you can use to pay is with a smartphone – an expensive smartphone. With our system, all the people around the world will be able to pay, even if they don’t have a smartphone.”
Fraud will be “impossible” because fingerprint readers are FBI certified, she said. “For example, if I chop your finger and use it to pay, it will not work. The readers have ‘liveness’ detection. So, they will be able to realize if the finger is alive or real.” This will, she hopes, eliminate credit card fraud, and streamline faster payment at store kiosks.
South Korea at the forefront of innovation
South Korea does have a reputation as a tech and innovation centre — after all, it’s the home of companies like Samsung and LG. But as a startup ecosystem, it’s one of the world’s most thriving. In fact, Startup Genome has Seoul at #12 in its global ranking. It’s also in the top 15 for knowledge and for talent and experience. The ecosystem’s strengths? AI/Big Data/Analytics, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing and robotics, reports Startup Genome.
At Collision, Hyunjin Shin, CEO and co-founder of Seoul’s Hudson.ai, is featuring their AI-powered dubbing solution to the film industry. It matches translated audio with natural mouth movement in any language or voice.
“Sometimes, people are struggling to see a movie because of subtitles or the awkward dubbing,” she said. “The voice actor’s voice is sometimes really different from the original content. Also, it doesn’t match the lip and sound. It makes you very disengaged. We would like to tackle that problem with generated AI technology.”
With a staff of nine, in its first year they have already dubbed two Korean feature films. She said the company is hoping to gain a foothold in documentary films and US major motion pictures.
Like countless other South Korean startups, Hudson.ai benefits from their government’s support, Shin added. “They also have many programs to help accelerate an early stage company – especially tech companies,” she said. “My country has more and more an entrepreneurial culture, with mentorship, funding, and networking opportunities.”
Companies like e-commerce app Coupang and mobile platform Kakao have achieved significant growth and valuation, inspiring and attracting aspiring entrepreneurs, she explained.
The interconnectedness fostered by Collision has created a fertile ground for innovation, where diverse perspectives and expertise converge to tackle complex global challenges.
As a four-day innovation station, no doubt many deals were made — a testament to these startups’ hotbed of creativity, disruption, and economic growth potential. The global startup ecosystem continues to thrive, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and shaping the future of industries worldwide.
Dave is a journalist whose work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets around the world, including BBC, National Post, Washington Times, Globe and Mail, New York Times, Baltimore Sun.
At Toronto tech show, second thoughts emerge over AI
Months after the spectacular launch of ChatGPT, the AI revolution is well underway but hints of caution are emerging, especially over letting one or two companies reign supreme.
The release of the poem-churning app by San Francisco-based OpenAI came at an opportune time for tech, landing just when the US giants were laying off thousands of workers and startups faced a funding winter after the collapse of cryptocurrencies.
While generative AI’s powers spooked many, even drawing calls for a freeze in its development, the tech world welcomed the respite from an otherwise miserable 2022 when a pandemic-era tech boom imploded.
But the crowds of startups and their backers meeting at the three-day Collision conference in Toronto heard second thoughts about artificial intelligence, even if convictions remained strong that it was here to stay.
“We’re about three steps into a 10K race,” said Adam Selipsky, the head of Amazon-owned AWS, the world’s biggest cloud company that is set to see a huge windfall from the AI excitement.
“The question is: where are the runners going? What’s the course like? Who’s watching the race?” Selipsky told a packed conference hall near the shores of Lake Ontario.
AWS is the archrival of Microsoft, the Redmond, Washington-based company that took the world by surprise earlier this year by diving head first into the ChatGPT goldrush.
Microsoft’s investment of billions of dollars into OpenAI launched an AI arms race, with Google following course by ramping up its release of AI-infused products, goading any company involved with technology to hurry out new capabilities.
“Like a lot of things, I think AI is overhyped in the short term and underhyped in the long term,” said Jordan Jacobs of Radical Ventures, a venture capital firm that has invested heavily in AI.
“But the difference with AI is that once you deploy it, it gets better and better and better,” meaning there is a real downside to coming in second place.
He said this was not the case with the advent of the personal computer or the smartphone, when those who waited, like Apple, were the companies that won.
The benefit of coming out first seems to leave OpenAI and its powerful Microsoft backer in the driver’s seat.
But AWS’s Selipsky and others cautioned about going all-in with one big company, especially with a technology that voraciously feeds off data and computing power.
– ‘Choice’ –
Hundreds of companies and governments have gone as far to ban their employees from using ChatGPT, worried that sensitive information will be uploaded to strengthen OpenAI’s large language model, becoming available to all.
One of the “most important things that we hear from customers around the world all the time is choice,” Selipsky said.
“The world needs access to a whole bunch of models in a place that you trust and with the security you demand,” he said.
At Collision, Booking.com, the online travel giant, announced a new product using OpenAI’s ChatGPT that will provide a conversational experience for users planning trips.
“This is just a start,” Rob Francis, chief technology officer of Booking.com told AFP, all the while defending the company’s turn to OpenAI.
Models from the likes of OpenAI or Google, “they’re great for general purpose” like a chat about holiday plans, he said.
But for more sensitive uses, companies will “start to run their own more tailored models, in their own environment,” he said.
As the world’s biggest companies rushed out their AI products, the startup community was warned not to take too much solace from the hype sparked by ChatGPT.
Even if generative AI has caught the world’s attention, “people are still approaching startup investment through a cautionary lens,” Vincent Harrison of PitchBook, the business research company, told AFP.
“Deal activity is down, fundraising is down, the IPO environment is probably the worst that it’s been since the global financial crisis,” Harrison said.
“I think ChatGPT blew the minds of a lot of people… but is AI enough to bring things where we saw them in 2021? I don’t think so.”
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