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Carolina Bessega, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Stradigi AI, in Montreal on April 12, 2019. Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Quebec’s financing arm, Investissement Québec, provided slightly more than half the funding.

The Canadian Press

One of Montreal’s early artificial intelligence leaders, Stradigi AI Inc., has raised $53-million in a financing from a group of investors that includes Quebec institutions and U.S. rap star will.i.am.

The 14-year-old company said labour-backed Fonds de solidarité FTQ and the provincial government’s financing arm, Investissement Québec (IQ), provided slightly more than half the funding. Other investors include the Holdun Family Office – which invests on behalf of the descendants of early 20th century Montreal tycoon Herbert Holt – Montreal technology entrepreneur Lester Fernandes, advertising company Cossette Inc., and U.S. singer will.i.am, whose involvement with the company was announced in May.

About 80 per cent of the funds, which includes a small amount of debt, came from Quebec sources.

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“We knew working with these organizations [rather than pursuing foreign funding] we’d get to be in Quebec and in Canada for a very long time," said Stradigi co-founder and chief executive officer Basil Bouraropoulos. “That was very important to us as entrepreneurs.”

The funding follows a string of announcements in the past year from Stradigi, which had previously kept a lower profile than flashy cross-town rival Element AI – whose most recent venture funding was led by IQ and Quebec pension giant Caisse de dépôt et placement du Quebec – as the city’s AI scene became renowned this decade. “We don’t want to be one of those companies that’s all about the AI hype and how much money we’ve raised,” Mr. Bouraropoulos told The Globe and Mail in May. “We want to be the company that shows real facts and solutions.”

Stradigi last month announced a strategic alliance with KPMG in Canada in which the professional services firm will use the company’s AI platform Kepler to help deliver business improvements to its corporate clients. Stradigi has also signed partnership development deals with Cossette, Berlin sports accelerator leAD, and Zu, a non-profit organization created by Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberté to help entertainment entrepreneurs use AI in their businesses.

"We are very pleased to support Stradigi AI as the company continues to execute on its ambitious expansion strategy,” said Emil Savov, the Fonds’ vice-president for investments and venture capital. “To ensure the future of the AI sector in Québec, [the company’s] expertise must be further aligned with commercial and strategic goals, which is one of the reasons the Fonds is investing.”

Will.i.am told The Globe in a recent interview he backed Stradigi and agreed to become its adviser on AI bias and ethics – emerging issues related to how AI algorithms entrench the biases of their creators – because he was “really intrigued” by its platform and commitment to “empower” people through AI. “We have the same moral compass,” said the artist, who has invested in several tech firms, including Pinterest, Twitter and Tesla. “They are big-hearted, family-orientated, lovely freaking Canadians [and Latin] Americans.”

Like many AI companies, Stradigi has worked for much of the past few years with prospective customers on “proof of concept” engagements, placing its products in their operations. For example, Mr. Bouraropoulos said his company improved indexing and complaints-handling for a Brazilian social network, sped up document transcription for a national government, and helped a transportation and logistics company detect objects in the way. Stradigi declined to name its customers, citing non-disclosure agreements.

It also developed an AI-based game that teaches American Sign Language.

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The company started as a software development services provider in 2005, shifting to AI starting in 2014, when two scientists on its staff, Venezuelans Carolina Bessega and Jaime Camacaro (now chief scientific officer and chief innovation officer, respectively), proposed to solve a complex assignment with machine learning.

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