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Competing against global cities such as New York, San Francisco, London and Tel Aviv, Montreal has made a name for itself in the field of artificial intelligence. Just in the past year, Facebook, Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. opened AI-focused research labs in city. Part of Montreal’s transformation into a regional tech hub was Element AI, one of Quebec’s unicorn startups, which develops artificial intelligence solutions for businesses small and large.
Its Montreal-born founder and CEO, Jean-François Gagné, had the right background for an entrepreneurial career.
“Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. They have a construction business, and I got involved with it early on – at 13 years old, I started working for them on the weekends and during my summers. An entrepreneurial fire is part of my DNA.”
With his co-founder Yoshua Bengio, one of Canada’s pioneer artificial intelligence experts from Université de Montréal, Gagné launched Element AI in 2016. The high-quality talent pool in Montreal encouraged Gagné and Bengio to set up office in Canada’s second-largest city.
“Having world-class employees is essential in an industry like artificial intelligence, which radically changes how a business operates. As a global company, we are very proud about the quality of the talent we have access to here. One of the reasons people want to stay in Montreal is the city’s environment, which fosters a high level of collaboration.”
Gagné did not follow the traditional route to become CEO, deciding not to pursue his studies beyond Cégep, Quebec’s compulsory pre-university institution. Indeed, Cégep did not always fulfill his ambitions – but it did lead him to explore new areas.
“I think I tried about eight different programs in Cégep, searching for the right path. I experimented a lot and I ultimately ended up in a robotic and industrial automation program. Understanding how automation and robots work sparked my interest in exploring AI to solve big problems.”
Element AI is not Gagné’s first venture. He launched his first company at 20, selling it seven years later to create another. But wealth has never been Gagné’s motivation to launch new businesses.
“The reason you go through all this is not because you’re going to park millions of dollars in a bank account. Very quickly, you learn that money doesn’t make much of a difference in your quality of life, and certainly not in your happiness. You do this because you think you can make a difference.”
Building Element AI from scratch required Gagné to reflect on what leadership means to him.
“Leadership consists of being able to communicate clearly and rally people around a common goal, bringing out the best in them by providing the resources they need to reach their goals. It’s the ability to paint a vision and have a group of people embrace it.”
While the company focuses on tech, Gagné still values physical interaction for fostering a strong culture.
“We still spend quite a lot of time with the whole company together, all in the same place. Yes, we’re using (messaging software) Slack internally, and we could just write messages on a channel. But we spend time together, getting people to connect and talk.”
Leading a company such as Element AI is extremely demanding both professionally and personally, Gagné says. To maintain a healthy level of work-life integration, Gagné tried to define his personal boundaries early on to avoid exhaustion; today, this comes a bit more easily.
“Our early days were a bit intense: we never expected the company to get that amount of traction on the customer side. It was hard to find time for personal activities and to see friends. Very quickly, conversations became centered on the next business issue that I had on the top of my mind. Now, after almost two years in the business, we are figuring out a much better balance – but there is still work to do.”
Johan Rahimaly and Eric Schwartz, two recent McGill Graduates, contributed to this article.
May 31, 2019 at 07:48AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs