Recap: Montreal Startup Weekend – Artificial Intelligence Edition

Editor’s Note: From Friday September 22 to Sunday 24, McGill’s Post Graduate Student Society and the McGill Innovation Collective co-hosted the Montreal edition of the Startup Weekend: Artificial Intelligence – and special thanks to Bonnie Chau!

A 3-day contest gathering AI enthusiasts, developers, businesss-minded individuals from all backgrounds, Startup Weekend is an opportunity to work on developing a startup business model using Artificial Intelligence components and to build a prototype that is then demoed to a panel of experts at the end of the weekend. McGill Dobson Chronicles writer Charlotte attended the final presentations and closing cocktail to share with you the highlights of that intense weekend.

A Busy Weekend

Sunday, September 24th was a beautiful day. A warm, sunny day filled with Montrealers enjoying the oh-so-wonderful Indian summer. But Sunday was also the culmination of an intense experience for the 40 or so participants of the Montreal Startup Weekend Artificial Intelligence.

This September edition’s theme was artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI, with three key words: education, action, and innovation. The McGill Dobson Chronicles were invited to cover the final presentations and demos of the teams who spent their weekend working very hard on creating business models leveraging the yet-to-discover world of possibilities opened by Artificial Intelligence.

The participants celebrating the end of the weekend – Credits Luke Glendenning Photography

The Rules of the Game

On Friday 22nd, participants gathered at the kickoff cocktail to meet each other and everyone got to pitch an idea of their own. Attendants then had to form groups by the end of the evening based on their interest and expertise. On Saturday early morning, all newly-formed teams had to go through a Design Thinking session led by IBM. Developers had the choice to attend the Watson AI platform workshop in the afternoon, which led some teams to use the platform as the basis of their project. They then worked hard on the business model, the pitch, and the prototype (minimum viable product) that they would have to present to a jury of panels that consisted of 5 experts in AI, entrepreneurship, and venture capital.

So on Sunday afternoon, seeking shelter from the warmth, I stepped into a crowded Thomson House ballroom buzzing with excitement. 9 teams took turns to present the results of a weekend of effort, and friends, let me tell you that I was not disappointed.

Attending the kickoff cocktail of the Startup Weekend: AI – credits: Luke Glendenning Photography

Artificial Intelligence 101

If you already have some exposure to the startup or tech communities, you’ve probably already noticed that “AI” is all over the place. It’s the buzzword of the year. Artificial Intelligence is defined as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings. The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience”. (taken from Encyclopedia Britannica)

I freely admit that I am not familiar to the field. To me, at least until recently, AI was more of a sci-fi thing than an actual business component. My lack of familiarity with the subject made the Startup Weekend’s presentations all the more interesting.

Following are the three themes that stood out of all teams’ presentations:

  • Personalization

The great thing with technology nowadays is that it is able to collect massive amounts of data, and that at a very granular level. Besides, anything you do online creates data that is then traceable back to you. Most startups planned on leveraging that ever-growing pool of data to tailor their offerings to their customers, something artificial intelligence could help them do better.

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP)

Natural Language Processing is “a field of computer science, artificial intelligence and computational linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human (natural) languages, and, in particular, concerned with programming computers to fruitfully process large natural language corpora” (Wikipedia – your savior). NLP is of particular usefulness in AI, since it is what allows your machine to understand you when you talk to it. Ever talked to your phone to ask it to call a friend? That’s what it is. Only our teams had some new uses for it: team AIeq, for example, proposes to use NLP to record children’s answers when asked to talk about their day, and analyze the data produced to pick up their state of mind. Professors can then tailor mindfulness exercises to their students’ personal needs.

  • Dataset

Where does your data come from? How do you check its quality? How do you make sure your machine takes the right course of action? These are questions that came back more often than not at the end of presentations, a way for the panel to emphasize the criticality of managing data quality when working with such sophisticated technologies as artificial intelligence.

Great work guys!

All teams gave well-rounded, lively presentations and demos. It was a pleasure to get to discover the produce of their work, and I was surprised each and every time a new group took the stage, as domains as different as insurance, mental health, digital marketing, politics, or even bedtime stories, were reinvented to leverage AI technologies.

The two winning teams of the contest illustrate just how wide the range of possibilities is:

Team Spoken Adventures won the audience’s vote, and the 2nd place of the contest. Their idea is to use an AI-powered speech-recognition software to add sounds to storytelling time, making each bedtime story a whole new, engaging experience for both the parent and the child – even if it is the same story over and over again.

The winner of the jury’s vote is Skip the Line Now. Starting from the well-known hassle of being put on hold and having to wait for companies of public institutions to pick up the phone, Skip the Line Now offers to call the company on your behalf, and connect you when an operator picks up the phone. Acknowledging that phone service is a declining industry, the young startup’s grand vision is to build an associated dataset and become the one-stop shop for all things customer service.

And of course, it’s not a contest if there are no prices! Both teams were honored to receive one ticket each (face value $900) to the Deep Learning Summit hosted by Startup Weekend sponsor RE•WORK. The tickets were personally handed to each team’s most experienced AI-programmer. Top winning team Skip The Line Now was also invited to a meet-and-greet hosted by Google’s Google Brain team (artificial intelligence) for them to meet the company’s experts.

Winning Team Skip The Line during a mentoring session – credits: Luke Glendenning Photography

*** Update*** The 1st winning team of the Startup Weekend Montréal AI was also chosen to represent Montréal in the Global Startup Weekend AI competition, competing with 11 other cities all around the world, and we are delighted to announce that they also won the hearts of the judges on this much bigger scale! They are flying to Paris to attend the Hello Tomorrow conference to meet the AI community! We wish them the best in the future.

A Rewarding Learning Experience

The Startup Weekend represented an amazing learning experience for the participants. Not only were the teams composed of people who had everything to learn from each other, but the week end featured a number of presentations and workshops generously animated by some of the event’s sponsors. Among them, the Design Thinking workshop animated by IBM was unanimously pointed out as immensely helpful for the teams to steer in the right direction. Google also actively supported our AI-enthusiasts, with its Google Cloud Platform coming to McGill to present their platform. The final presentations were also a core part of that learning experience, as Jacques, a contestant, shared with me: “Feedback from the judges was amazing, they had great insights on everything. It will definitely help us moving forward “.

Before closing out the weekend with a networking session, Startup Weekend facilitator Diana Cheptene reminded the teams that only about 12% of Startup Weekend participants usually continue working on their projects after its end, and encouraged them to persevere and keep working hard.

The McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship is another resource for aspiring entrepreneurs and young startups in the McGill community. Don’t hesitate to stop by or send us an email to get consultation on your startup business model.

If you’d like to join a startup or have a team missing some key members, our McGill Dobson Match service can also be helpful! Check out how it works here.

If you want to read more about AI and innovation at McGill, check out these stories:

Charlotte Gauthron

Charlotte Gauthron

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Sciences Po Paris, Charlotte decided to join the Desautels Faculty of Management, where she’s now pursuing a BCom, majoring in Information Systems. Now a staff writer for The Dobson Chronicles, she loves learning about new ideas. She hopes to one day be able to find her dream job - one that will allow her to reconcile her deep interest for social enterprise with her love of food.