CEO Steve Irvine on Becoming a Global AI Leader and Toronto’s Edge

While running Facebook’s global partnerships team out of Menlo Park, Steve Irvine saw a big opportunity in artificial intelligence.

With his team spread across 22 offices in technology hubs around the world, Irvine watched where innovation was happening on a global scale and heard the problems that fast growing companies were running into—something he calls a “crazy unfair advantage.”

But the former Facebook executive didn’t want to build his latest venture—an AI company—in the Valley. He wanted to go where AI research was the best in the world. And that happened to be his former home Toronto.

Earlier this year, Irvine launched to develop an AI-powered enterprise software platform and raised a $5 million investment from Georgian Partners. Currently in alpha testing, the software uses AI to help large companies become customer-centric by anticipating consumer needs and identifying where they can add value, even when consumers don’t expect it.

Irvine has built his Integrate roster with top tier talent, nabbing former Fast Forward Labs president Kathryn Hume from New York City and former Airbnb executive Jason Silver. Today the 25 person team is 60 per cent women—a point of pride for the company. Irvine is gunning for Integrate’s software to be released next year.


Integrate has not released its software just yet but what is the thinking behind it?

If you think about the companies that are doing the best in the world right now—Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon—they are growing the fastest, but they are also the most adored brands. The secret sauce behind that is AI.

AI is allowing these experiences to be tremendously personalized to you. It allows you to feel understood. Big business-to-consumer companies—think banking, insurance, telecommunications, media, sports, entertainment, travel—are operating at a scale where intimacy has been a bit of a challenge. But they want to operate the way that an Amazon or a Facebook operates, they just don’t have the technology. And they don’t have all the tools to be able to do that effectively.

What we’re doing is building an enterprise software platform that allows them to operate like these big consumer internet companies. It’s powered by AI, but it also pulls together data that they’ve got internally, as well as data from alternative sources to be able to make sure that you’re making the best possible decisions as it relates to how you’re interacting and adding value to your customers.

How does your communications and psychology degree play into the AI space?

I feel like that’s always the missing piece on the technology side. And that becomes my big superpower in this technology world.

I have a keen sense for people and bringing the humanity into the discussion. It’s easy on a spreadsheet to start to make wrong decisions with technology; things that make sense on paper, in the real world, can be messy.

If we don’t account for people being emotional and unique in how you think about and build things, you’re missing something. My perspective is likely different than engineers; we have different mindsets. And that combination is where we get to awesome outcomes.

Facebook has a much-talked about corporate culture. Did their culture influence how you are leading Integrate?

At Facebook, I learned that a strong mission and people with aligned values can do unbelievable things. Entrepreneurs often think about that as not as meaningful as the product you’re building and the technology. But I think if you get great people that are aligned on values but bring different perspectives to the table, you end up building a world-changing business.

Our mission is at the core of who we are as a business. And a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish at Integrate is: How do we build a better future for people and businesses?

One of our five values is love people; it’s one of the things that we evaluate people on when they come in. And although it seems very obvious, most of the low hanging fruit business opportunities are automating away people’s jobs. It’s the easiest place to apply AI in a business context. I think there will be a day of reckoning where those businesses will not be seen as that successful because of the implications of what they’re doing.

We’re very much are focused on how do we put people at the center of our thinking. There’s a lot of bad software out there that we think we can target before having to worry about anybody’s jobs. We probably have a better window into what the future is going to look like, and therefore, we can spend more of our time in skills retraining for people that we think are in affected areas.

You’ve already pulled in some notable tech talent. What do you think it is about Integrate that is so attractive?

I don’t think there is a bigger opportunity on Earth right now than being involved in AI. It’s such a horizontal opportunity. It affects all industries. It affects all processes. It’s going to have massive global ramifications. We’re hiring some of the best machine learning people from around the world.

Now we’re still small, so it’s not like we’re reversing the brain drain problem, but I do think what attracts people to stay is they see this as their chance to get on a rocket ship. They see big ambition, they see potential, they see a marketplace that’s exploding, and they want to be a driver in a company that’s going to really capitalize on that. And I think the way that we talk about what we are trying achieve, and the scale at which we think we can operate, and the speed at which we’re growing, I think starts to show people it’s possible.

The more great smart people that you bring together, the more it validates that it’s possible, and the easier it becomes to kind of roll the ball down the hill and continue to get the great talent, because they want to work with the people you initially recruited.

We have a very people-centric view to the business. Hiring the best people and building products around people—that’s the mission. We think at the end of the day it’s a very humanistic thing.

To solve a lot of these problems, we want to use technology to do better things for people, and if you can figure out what those things are, and you can execute on that effectively, there’s a huge opportunity right now to build amazing big businesses that can change the world.

You left the Valley behind to launch Integrate in Toronto. Why move?

I actually assumed at the beginning that I would start Integrate in Silicon Valley. My gut told me that I’m likely in the best place to start any technology company. But as I spoke to more people, and as I did more research, I just started to find that more and more roads led back to Toronto, which was a little bit surprising.

I started to realize that Toronto really is the founding city of modern AI. Geoff Hinton—a professor from U of T—is basically the godfather of this very popular advanced area of AI called deep learning. If you look at the leaders of the AI research labs from Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, OpenAI—which is Elon Musk’s big billion dollar AI—and Uber, all of them studied under Geoff Hinton, right here in Toronto.

We have this unbelievable research advantage here that I don’t think a lot of people know about. I already knew this was a great place to live and had a great diverse workforce. As the evaluation was complete, I said, “This is genuinely the best place in the world to build a global leading AI business,” and that’s when I made the decision to move back.

When I announced that I was coming back, people in the Valley were overwhelming positive. They congratulated me on heading to where the research was the best and the entrepreneurial grit. They loved the move.

I had a very opposite reaction from a lot of Canadians. I’d get, “What happened? You gotta be closer to family?” It always started with the assumption that I couldn’t be back because it’s the best place to be. I had to be back for some other reason. That something drew me back. That if everything was okay, I would have stayed in Silicon Valley as an executive at Facebook.

There is a lot of talk about how the next Silicon Valley can be built in Canada.

Silicon Valley is a great place but they’re not outer worldly in terms of their comparison to us. There is just this mystique with the Valley. It’s like when you’re in high school in grade 9 and there is someone in grade 12 who seems unbelievable to you, and then you meet them later in life and they’re just an average Joe and you realize they aren’t that amazing. I think we have that syndrome. 

One of the things I’ve love for us to not talk about is how we can be the next Silicon Valley. It just frames the question totally wrong. If we’re going to run the same play card, we’re going to lose. Let’s highlight our strengths as Canada. Let’s focus on where we have the advantage. Let’s stay in our lane. Let’s not worry about what other people are doing.

When you’re in Silicon Valley, nobody talks about other cities. Nobody cares. They focus on what they’re doing. We obsess here about becoming ‘Silicon Valley North.’ It’s a great model to learn from, but too much obsession on copying their homework is not healthy. We need to learn the long division, we don’t need to copy other people’s answers. 

Canadians are relatively humble. Is an attitudinal shift needed to be firmly recognized as a world leader in technology?

I think if we truly want to be known as a leader, we need to start to think about what areas within technology can we be world leaders. Do we have a natural advantage, whether it’s a research advantage, a talent advantage or the way that our financial system is set up? Where can we double down and become a leader in one area of technology? And once we’ve established ourselves there as a world leader, how do we then expand? And I think part of being able to accomplish that is how can you get people to think bigger about the opportunity?

At Integrate, we say: “We’re a global company that’s based in Canada, not a Canadian company.” And the reason why we make the distinction is we want to be clear about the fact that we’ve got global ambitions.

We don’t want to be just seen as a company that’s a really great Canadian company. We want to be seen as a great global company that happens to be based in Canada, because it’s the best place to headquarter the business.

When I was at Facebook, one of our partners was Shopify. I don’t think there was a person at Facebook—other than the people that are working directly on that partnership—that knew that Shopify was a Canadian company because it didn’t matter. They were the global leader. They didn’t come in draped in the Canadian flag saying, “You must recognize me as an amazing Canadian company.” They came in and said, “We’re the best e-commerce platform in the world, and that’s what we’re bringing to the table.”

How can Canada’s tech industry contribute to reversing brain drain?

I think we need an ecosystem of exciting companies that range from true early stage startups to global leading technology businesses. We need multiple, billion dollar companies here that are growing fast with great opportunities to keep the majority of the talent in this country.

When you have that sort of an ecosystem, it provides you all the opportunities you need to stay, without feeling like you’re taking a big hometown discount to stay, which is what I’ve heard from a lot of Canadians in the Valley. They made their decision to go to the Valley not because they necessarily wanted to live there, or it was always their ambition, but because they felt like the advancement they would have in their career there was so much bigger than the advancement that they could ever achieve here. They felt like they had to go.

I think the more we can close the gap, and I think we are closing the gap, the easier it becomes for somebody to say, “I love this country, I want to stay here, I want to contribute, and now I can see the path for me to have an amazing career here.” It doesn’t have to be a decision to leave.

The Vector Institute fills one void that we’ve had, especially on the AI side here in Toronto, which is the need to attract the best researchers globally in AI. We have the University of Toronto, which is known as one of the top academic institutions, but there are lot of people that don’t want to be professors, they just want to do research. Others want to be a professor, but they want to supplement their income by being able to work on research projects. That becomes really easy when you’ve got Vector, a world leading research institute that’s connected to an academic institute.

We’ve always been strong on the academic side and I think Vector is meant to be that piece that connects the commercial world of technology to the academic world.

That gap between research and commercial product is still significant. How can we bridge that gap?

Hopefully, the answer is Integrate.

I don’t think that fundamental research on its own delivers great products. I think products are based on customer intimacy. You need to really deeply understand the problem that you’re solving, and then you go and figure out which of the research applies to solving that problem.

I think one of the areas that we’ve seen the commercialization go wrong is when somebody spends a lot of time on research, as I like to call it, a solution looking for a problem. They come out and say, “I’ve got this amazing thing that does a lot of awesome stuff,” and then people are like, “Okay, and what do I do with it?” And they can describe why it’s great, but they can’t apply it to solve a problem that people care to solve. It becomes one of these things that you look at and you’re impressed with, but doesn’t end up being an exciting product or anything that somebody wants to invest in.

We’re trying to fill the gap and we’ve got the lead on research. That lead is only going to extend with Vector coming in. We need to have a big applied AI ecosystem in order for Canada to capitalize on that advantage, because the jobs, the enterprise value and the wealth creation all comes on the applied side. And so if the research is commercialized elsewhere, you lose a lot of the value that you’re creating upstream that we feel like companies including Integrate can help capitalize on.

You need to make sure that the problems that you’re solving are big and meaningful, and are in markets that can build these businesses. When you think about AI, it can apply to almost any problem, but you need to be able to figure out, “What am I going to focus on and what does that competitive landscape look like?” and then you need to assemble a world-class team and you need to execute. And those things are easy in practice, but really difficult in reality.

Interview was edited and condensed for clarity by Kate CornickPhoto by Matt Odynski.