How Element AI founder JF Gagné is using AI to solve enterprise business problems
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Building a successful artificial intelligence (AI) startup takes a lot more than just programming savvy and technical know-how. AI entrepreneurs need to understand business trends, solve problems, and use technology to deliver the right solutions
That’s precisely the approach that Jean-Francoise (JF) Gagné is taking with his current company Element AI. JF has spent the better part of his career developing technology solutions for industries ranging from retail and field service to manufacturing and call centers.
Samsung NEXT’s Scott Armanini recently caught up with JF during the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal. They discussed JF’s journey from programming novice to raising more than $100 million in funding for Element AI.
They also talked about how AI can help businesses take a new approach to old problems, and how “AI for good” can potentially address some of the biggest social challenges of the 21st Century.
A native of Montreal, Canada, what first inspired JF to explore the world of technology was something fairly simple: video games.
“Back in my days, you needed to understand how to use common lines of code just to run a game on your PC,” recalls JF. “ That’s when I started getting interested in tech, and putting more time into programming and software, while still working construction for my family, and studying for high school.”
Working retail jobs during that time also opened JF’s eyes to challenges that technology might help solve. “I saw a lot of problems in retail operations where managers were struggling with decision-making,” he says. “The software was old, and I saw an opportunity to do things differently. So I started to code and giving programs to stores for free.”
But instead of accepting a full-time job creating business intelligence software for a single company, JF’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked-in. “I just said thanks for the offer and I really do want to help,” he says. “But I’m quitting my job to start a company and you can hire my company to build things for you.”
JF’s early work focused on developing HTML-based enterprise applications designed to assist in complex business decision making. Next, he began incorporating automated decision-making and optimization engines into his software — the precursors of AI.
“That was my first step towards what’s now considered the broad field of artificial intelligence,” he says. “We did that for two years, and then customers began asking ‘What can we do next?'”
The vision for Element AI
JF’s next step – and what ultimately became the catalyst for creating Element AI – was working in academia to solve a complex workforce scheduling problem for one of his clients.
“I ended going to MILA – the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms – run by a guy named Yoshua Bengio,” says JF. “He had a consulting company and we started to do projects together. Fast forward to 2008, and you had Bengio and others recognize that deep learning is the best approach to solving structured data problems.”
JF worked with Bengio to form a company focused on early AI-based solutions for workforce optimization in the service industry, from call center workers to field service technicians. After that company’s acquisition, JF decided to go off on his own again, this time fully focused on pushing the limits of AI for businesses.
“I decided to partner with my same co-founders at my prior two companies to really realize my vision,” JF says. “And that was the creation of Element AI in late 2016. It was 20 years in the making. We put together some early backers, then went on to raise a Series A of $102 million.”
JF’s primary vision for Element AI was to develop AI-based applications for enterprise-related problems. At that time, most AI went into understanding consumer behavior.
“We decided to position Element AI to be that AI technology partner for large enterprises,” he says. “To drive research, the application of that research, and eventually create a product portfolio of technology that will help our customers drive transformation.”
Some of the products developed by Element AI include interactive chatbots for customer service and intelligent databases to help with complex search queries.
“I’m fascinated by how organizations make decisions, and how the dependency between those decisions impacts strategy and day-to-day tactics,” JF says. “Whether it’s manufacturing, field technicians, airlines, or the financial sector, most businesses face the same kind of decision problems.”
As AI has become more mainstream, Element AI has evolved. “AI is now transforming the way business-people can approach these problems, which is very exciting, and a tremendous opportunity for Element AI,” JF says.
Building a better world
Today not enough resources are being devoted to social causes, and Element AI is hoping to change that.
“There’s a lack of talent and resources being devoted to areas that are more social,” he says. “So in the very early days, Element AI has been partnering with organizations like Amnesty International and the Mozilla Foundation to provide AI that makes the world a better place.”
For example, Element AI is developing natural language processing (NLP) software designed to prevent online bullying, trolling, and harassment. “Whether it’s creating deep fakes, propagating hate speech, or trying to manipulate the public, there are tons of bad situations out there,” he says. “But the technology is also there to detect those bad actors and create proper opposition.”
JF continues to tap his own entrepreneurial spirit in developing AI solutions for both businesses and bigger picture social issues. His new projects include sharing Element AI’s know-how on the company blog and producing a podcast called “The AI Element.”
“AI is impacting the human-machine relationship and really changing the nature of work,” JF says. “But there’s still a lot to be learned, and tons of opportunities to be a part of the AI-enabled future.”
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