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(Kelsey McKeon / The McGill Tribune)

SWAI Montreal comes to McGill

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Starting on Friday, Sept. 22, McGill University hosted Startup Weekend, an entrepreneurship competition where participants pitched, designed, and polished inventive ideas for businesses within a 54-hour time frame. The competition, held in Thomson House, was the first Artificial Intelligence (AI)-themed Startup Weekend in Canada.

Alex Smirnov, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Dialogue, a virtual care platform that provides customers with video access to healthcare professionals, spoke at the opening of the event about the impact of AI on various industries, emphasizing its potential to change the world.

“It’s very addictive to be part of an intensely innovated group that takes risks, that tries things,” Smirnov said. “I think that’s really the benefit [of] growing the startup community in Montreal.”

Topics of education and mental health came up a lot across the pitches. In particular, competitors Justin Park and Daniel Gauthier floated ideas for addressing common student mental health issues through gaming and identifying mental health risks by tracking the click patterns of Google users through Google images. Park is working toward a MBA with a concentration in business analytics, while Gauthier works as a director for Nuvoola, a cloud-based assistance provider.

After a weekend of collaborating with coaches, attending workshops, interviewing potential customer demographics, and creating prototypes, the nine teams rallied for the final five-minute pitch on Sunday night. The judging committee consisted of five members with extensive backgrounds in tech and AI. Broken down into equally weighted categories, the scoring rubric rewarded ideas based on their execution of prototypes, business model, potential to attract customers, and incorporation of AI.

“I’m going to be looking for the applicability of AI to the project that they worked on,” Ross Goroshin, research scientist at Google Brain, said. “The second thing I’m going to look for is […] how did they collect that data, what kind of information are they trying to extract, whether that process is biased in some way or not, just generally how sane is it, what they’re trying to do.”

Each group received feedback from the judges immediately following their final pitch. The first place winner, ‘Skip the Line,’ showcased an automated interface that allows users to hang up a call while on hold and receive a call back when the other line answers. The judges applauded the group’s successful implementation of their prototype and their thorough research. The idea was the brainchild of Justine Gagnepain, a McGill alumni and application developer at Dynamicly, a computer software development company.

The idea was inspired by Gagnepain’s recent personal experiences involving phone conversations with Immigration Canada.

“I’ve been thinking about my idea for about three months,” Gagnepain said. “I’ve been trying to fight for permanent residency in Canada, and I’ve been put on hold for over 50 minutes [in the process].”

‘Spoken Adventures,' a project that would incorporate voice-activated sound effects in bedtime stories, took home second place in the competition. The judges highlighted the potential for Spoken Adventures to partner with Amazon or Apple. Spoken Adventures also won the Crowd Favorite award, chosen by the volume of cheers from other participants and teams.

Coming in at third place, ‘AllSet’ proposed a ‘chatbot’, an interface that allows users to communicate with a computer in a message format similar to texting. It would provide responses to insurance questions such as “Is my friend covered to drive my car?” Queries would be answered after the bot processed a photo of a written insurance contract. Additionally, the bot would help consumers search virtually for the best insurance policy available at the lowest price.

Although he did not win, Gauthier explained the value of the competition in drawing attention towards the growing AI sector and its broad applicability.

“I realized this was the most exceptional experience, because it’s not about winning the first prize,” Gauthier said. “It’s about creating synergy; it’s more about the human factor.”

As the first place winners, Gagnepain’s team had the opportunity to send a video pitch of their idea to both Global Startup Weekend AI and Startup Canada. ‘Skip the Line’ will be judged in these two separate competitions against winners of other Startup Weekends across the globe.

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