When Stephen Piron graduated from the University of Toronto (U of T)'s School of Computer Science in 2003, he wanted nothing more than to leave Canada for a place where he could work among the best in the tech industry. After a brief stint in Silicon Valley and selling a successful start-up he founded to competitors in the U.S., Piron moved to the United Kingdom where he spent the better part of a decade working in quantitative finance.

"It was very different back then, I worked at a hedge fund that recruited people from all over the world and I don't think I received any specific value from saying I went to the University of Toronto," confesses Piron. "But over the past few years, things have completely changed."

Toronto becomes an AI talent hotspot

A defining moment for Piron came when he had a chance encounter with Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind, while backstage at a tech conference in Paris in 2014. "I told Hassabis that I had grown up in Toronto, and was surprised to learn he had near encyclopedic knowledge of the city," says Piron. "I came to realize it was because he had been poaching talent from the University of Toronto's Machine Learning Lab for years. That's when a light bulb went on. I thought: here is the coolest company in all of Europe, and they are looking at Toronto as a centre for AI talent. I need to launch a deep learning start-up back in Canada."

Co-founder and co-CEO of Dessa, Stephen Piron standing in front of a blackboard.
Co-founder and co-CEO of Dessa, Stephen Piron

In 2015, Piron returned to Toronto where he co-founded DeepLearni.ng, which recently rebranded itself to Dessa, with Eric Lee, Ragavan Thurairatnam and Vincent Wong. A year later, the company became one of the first AI companies in the world to put a deep learning system into production for a retail bank. Partnering with Scotiabank to build a customized AI system, Dessa helped the bank reap significant savings while simultaneously providing a tailor-made foundation for the bank's long-term AI vision. Dessa is now Scotiabank's primary strategic partner for building AI solutions, while also continuing to work with large enterprises in a variety of verticals.

How banks can leverage AI

"Improving customer service -- becoming a more customer-centric organization -- that's the early win for banks looking to leverage AI," Piron explains. "If you think about it, every time you swipe your debit or credit card, financial institutions everywhere are collecting data. Transactions produce a tremendous amount of rich data that banks are just sitting on, but if they can use it to better understand and predict the needs of their customers, the data unlocks incredible opportunity."

When Dessa began, they used conventional tools such as TensorFlow to build and deploy deep learning solutions, but quickly found the tools available were holding them back. That initiated the development of Dessa Foundations, the company's in-house platform for creating enterprise AI systems. In fact, more than half of Dessa's staff is now focused on advancing the platform for full-scale deployment.

Realistic use cases for AI

While Dessa Foundations has been critical to the team's success to date, Piron explains the real secret to the firm's success is how they've built trust with their clients. "There is a lot of hype around artificial intelligence, and it would be easy to overpromise what AI can do for a large bank,” says Piron. “Our process is built to avoid this, and we work very closely with clients to identify realistic use cases with the goal of building their AI capabilities. Eventually, we want to lead enterprise teams to the point they can use our platform with limited help from us." The firm's partnership with NVIDIA has also been critical to increase its business development profile as well as provide access to key AI infrastructure hardware.

Investors from Silicon Valley now come to Ontario

Despite his firm's remarkable success, Piron still can't believe how quickly Toronto's reputation has grown in such a short period. "When I mention to someone in New York City that our company is a part of the Vector Institute, that means something to them," Piron says enthusiastically. His firm recently opened an office in New York City after Dessa was selected as one of the members of the Canadian Technology Accelerator (CTA).

"Investors that once never left the Valley are flying here frequently to visit the Creative Destruction Lab." Piron recalls a recent trip to a conference in California during which a Stanford professor asked him where his team was from. "Oh, Toronto," the professor replied. "You're probably way ahead of us."

"That would have been really hard to imagine just a few years ago," says Piron. "The truth is, we've rapidly developed a first-rate international reputation for the quality of our talent. People from all over the world are interested in coming here because Toronto is at the centre of the AI universe."

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July 17, 2018

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