Celebrating the Role of Academics in a Startup Ecosystem

Oh, how I miss Korea!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present the Montreal AI Ecosystem and its research culture in a conference organized by the Korea Development Institute.

Here’s what I said, in a nutshell: I feel we’ve been doing a pretty good job of nurturing human-to-human relationships across the industrial / startup / academic boundary.

Personally, I’m grateful for our special vibe. I feel I regularly get the opportunity to have fruitful exchanges with academic researchers and graduate students even though I’m not a part of their world. These discussions typically flow in both directions: I’m equally excited to learn about their research than they are to listen to me and my startup struggles. Their insights and creativity give me a regular boost.

Historically, we’ve seen the role of academics in a startup ecosystem as purveyors of the initial idea. We need them to invent our deep tech, but then they can take a back seat while entrepreneurs convert their idea into a commercial product.

I don’t like this. I think it’s a reductive view. For me, the real value academics can bring to a startup ecosystem is through their unique blend of creativity and broad expertise. They have the rare ability to approach problems with wild ideas that are nonetheless technologically feasible. This is a skill you need again, and again, and again as you build a startup. You need this ten times more than you need a brilliant initial idea. Pivot is the name of the game, so creative resilience is the key. Academics have plenty of that.

To all of you researchers who help keep that special vibe alive: thank you!

More specifically, thanks to all of you who gave me a personal boost since I started Waverly: Yoshua Bengio, Blake Richards, Marc G. Bellemare, Graham Taylor, Anirudh Goyal, Dr. Sasha Luccioni, Dzmitry Bahdanau, Nicolas Chapados, Nicolas Le Roux, Joelle Pineau, Craig Reynolds, Vicky Kaspi, Kory W. Mathewson, Irina Rish, Eilif Benjamin Muller, Pedro O. Pinheiro, Anqi Xu, Xiang Zhang, Glen Berseth, Michiel van de Panne, Charles Onu, Edith Law, Max Welling, Michael McCool, James O’Brien, Eugene Fiume, Pierre Poulin, Hugo Larochelle.

BTW, I’m not saying it’s unique to Montreal ā€” some of the researchers named above are from across the world ā€” but I feel that spirit is alive and well here.