Dr. Raquel Urtasun
Dr. Raquel Urtasun, Founder and CEO of Toronto-based Waabi, raised $100 million in the first round of financing.

Toronto, Ontario provided the perfect climate for AI innovation

In June of 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Toronto computer science professor Dr. Raquel Urtasun announced she had launched the self-driving company Waabi. The news got the attention of the global automotive industry.

That’s because Urtasun is an acknowledged world leader in the field of autonomous vehicle development. Her talent and track record attracted an impressive list of investors, starting with Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures—all of them excited by the startup’s new “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercialization of self-driving vehicles.

“The timing is right for Waabi,” says Urtasun. “We’ve seen a lot of consolidation in the industry, but that’s not always a good thing. One of the drawbacks is that you get less and less diversity of approach. When you’re trying to solve such a difficult problem as self-driving, you really need to consider multiple approaches.”

Drawn to diversity and its strength

Urtasun is a big believer in the power of diversity. In fact, diversity is a major reason she has no plans to leave Toronto. The Spanish native arrived at the University of Toronto in 2014 from Chicago, where she was an assistant professor with the Toyota Technological Institute. She fell in love with Toronto immediately.

“It’s a multicultural city that offers so much opportunity,” enthuses Urtasun, who went on to become chief scientist at Uber ATG. There, she assembled a diverse team of top-notch engineers and researchers, a mix of home-grown and foreign talent, who also loved working and living in the city. Uber announced it was selling its self-driving unit to Aurora in December 2020. Six months later, Urtasun launched Waabi.

“There was no question that Waabi would be centred in Toronto,” she says. “That’s where my team wants to be and where I want to be.”

Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square with the large Toronto sign lit up.
With over 200 ethnic groups and 140 languages spoken, Toronto is often credited as
the world’s most multicultural city. Credit: © City of Toronto

AI expertise was essential to setting up business

While Toronto’s diversity was a big draw, it was also the depth of AI expertise at the University of Toronto that attracted Urtasun. The field of artificial intelligence was led by Geoffrey Hinton and his team of University of Toronto researchers.

As Hinton, an investor in Waabi, has said, “[The University of Toronto has] produced world-leading researchers, who today, are training the next generation, with significant financial support from the Canadian and Ontario governments and industry.”

Ontario is committed to maintaining its leadership position in AI, including in the field of self-driving vehicles. In May 2017, the Ontario government invested $50 million in Toronto’s Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Co-founded by Urtasun and generously supported by international companies with a Canadian presence in a range of sectors, Vector is building on Ontario’s outstanding pool of globally recognized AI expertise by training, attracting and retaining more top researchers—and giving them the flexibility to work on commercial applications with companies, or in their own startups.

Urtasun didn’t initially have a set of mentors as she rocketed to the top of the AI field, but has since found an amazing set of advisors in Waabi. She appreciates the importance in empowering people to excel. “If Waabi is successful—and we aim to be—it will be because of everyone. This is a team effort.”