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The DarwinAI team
Sheldon (centre) with the rest of the DarwinAI team.

Get to Know Cohort 5: DarwinAI

Waterloo-based DarwinAI is a cutting-edge artificial intelligence company that is developing technology designed to accelerate the adoption of deep neural networks. DarwinAI is also currently taking part in Cohort 5 of the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program. The executive team consists of Co-founder and Chief Scientist Alexander Wong (PhD); Co-founder and VP Research Mohammad Javad Shafiee (PhD); COO Arif Virani; and CEO Sheldon Fernandez, who was interviewed by the Lazaridis Institute for this Q&A.

Lazaridis Institute: How did DarwinAI get started?

Sheldon Fernandez: There were two academics at the University of Waterloo, Professor Alexander Wong, who is Canada’s Research Chair in AI, and Mohammad Javad Shafiee, who did his PhD postdoc under Alex. They came up with this really inventive IP around deep learning that was originally invented to accelerate computer vision. Alex was presenting it and someone came up to him and said, “The computer vision stuff is interesting, but the real IP and the real cool stuff is this way you’ve accelerated deep learning.” So they thought “Okay, maybe we should start thinking about creating a company around this.” But being academics, they hadn’t really done this at scale before. So that’s where I came in.

LI: Can you provide a bit of your own background?

SF: I went to the University of Waterloo and in 2001 I started an enterprise software consulting company called Infusion with four other classmates. We began life on wall street writing trading systems for very large banks. We built that company up from the original five employees to 700 and were acquired in 2017 by company called Avanade, which is co-owned by Microsoft and Accenture.

Towards the end of my tenure at Infusion, a colleague named Arif Virani reached out to me because of the work I was doing in deep learning. He said, “Here, go have a convo with this guy Alex.” So I met Professor Alexander Wong in March 2018. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about doing another start-up. I had just exited a 15-year journey, was going to relax, watch some Price is Right, drive my wife to work, all that lovely stuff. But the team and the technology was just too compelling, and lo and behold, before even exiting and leaving my start-up, I joined another. We entered the Creative Destruction Lab program that fall, did our seed rounds shortly after that, and then we were off to the races.

LI: As CEO, what is it that you enjoy most about building a company?

SF: There’s nothing as energizing professionally as starting a venture. Everything is on you. The go-to market, the sales, the hiring of staff – that energy of being completely free and responsible for the entire organization is really galvanizing. I met my wife half way through my previous venture and by that time, we were at 100 people. When Darwin started, she said, “I’ve never seen you like this, you’re getting up at 4 a.m. every day because you want to, not because you have to.”
That energy of starting a venture and really bringing it to fruition is intoxicating, which I guess is why I am doing it again.

LI: What milestone achieved by DarwinAI are you proudest of and why?

SF: I think the big one for us was actually bringing the platform to market and having it being used commercially. In artificial intelligence right now, there’s a real gap between scholarship that’s produced in research and the laboratory, and companies in the enterprise that are leveraging it. So we spent about eight months of really solid engineering work building a robust platform that enterprise can use. I remember when our very first customer was using the platform, there was a sense of quiet satisfaction that we’ve done it. We’ve actually brought an AI product to market. That’s the milestone I think, right now, we’re proudest of.

LI: What motivated you to apply to the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program and what do you hope to get out of the experience?

SF: One of the big challenges I see in Canada – and the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program speaks to this – is that we’re really good at research, R&D, and academics. Where we’re not as skilled as our American counterparts is bringing an organization to a really large scale. I’ve done that in the services realm, but I haven’t done that in the product realm. The mentorship and the network and ecosystems the ScaleUp Program can provide around some of those hard lessons-learned is what I am looking most forward to. And, if our first couple of workshops are anything go by, it’s already dramatically exceeded our expectations.

LI: Which program weekend are you most looking forward to and why?

SF: I think sales – really scaling up our sales strategy. Like I said, I’ve done product before. I’ve done organization building before. But selling something and really getting liftoff in the marketplace around product is the one that I think will be most valuable for us.

LI: What’s the best part about being located in Waterloo?

SF: The main thing about Waterloo is the access to talent you have in AI, machine learning, and deep learning is probably unsurpassed in any other geography. What’s especially beneficial to us is having Alex, just because of who he is and his prominence at the university, we’re able to tap into some of the most promising graduate students. It’s really that ecosystem that is just so beneficial for us.

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