By Chris Rickett, City of Markham
Languages are difficult. Figuring out meaning takes so much processing power and electricity that chatbots usually operate from enormous datacentres. But a Canadian company called Applied Brain Research has developed an artificial neural network that can do the job on just a fraction of the energy. ABR has created a microchip that could be included in almost any device to enable it to understand voice commands and reply. The company’s chief executive, Chris Eliasmith, says the technology could be used in places like high-end cameras to provide advice on the complex controls. “We also have clients who are using it in operating rooms to add voice-controlled elements to the operation and taking notes automatically,” he adds.
ABR is among a growing number of semiconductor and hardware focused companies that have emerged from Canada’s thriving tech sector in recent years. Many of them are connected to Markham, a city north of Toronto that is home Canada’s largest cluster of semi-conductor companies, with over 1,500 companies located in the city. Attracted by its educated workforce and quality of life, numerous multinational companies have established offices and R&D centres in the city, including AMD, Microart, and Astera Labs. The city is also home to Canada’s Semiconductor Council, an industry-led coalition of businesses and chip manufacturers that aims to position Canada has a global leader in developing and manufacturing semiconductor products.
In addition, Markham boasts several platforms that help launch Canada’s homegrown semiconductor companies. Among these is the Hardware Catalyst Initiative, Canada’s first hardware and semiconductor-focused lab and incubator. Operated by the city’s accelerator ventureLAB, it currently supports nearly two dozen ventures—including ABR—and has helped these companies commercialize 30 new products. The Hardware Catalyst Initiative provides entrepreneurs with access to state-of-the-art lab space where they can test and refine their technologies, and it also connects them with industry experts who can guide them through the process of bringing a product to market.
“These are people who are willing to share their experiences, contacts and know-how, and that can make a huge difference,” says Ernest Earon, chief executive of Neoglacia, which is developing a robotic instrument for use in medical research. This kind of expertise can be valuable in helping founders solve immediate problems while also ensuring they’re keeping an eye on their longer-range goals.
Demand for semiconductors is expected to increase exponentially in the coming decades, not least because they are essential components in solar panels and other technologies necessary for the transition to clean energy. Some analysts expect demand from electric vehicle manufacturers alone will grow by around 30 percent a year over the next four years. With governments and businesses keen to bring more of this capacity back to North America, the city of Markham has a big role to play in the future of this fast-growing industry.
Chris Rickett is Director of Economic Growth, Culture and Entrepreneurship at the City of Markham in Ontario, Canada.