The province’s innovation ecosystem is the perfect habitat for the biotech giant’s AI centre of excellence

Roche is the world’s largest biotechnology company with operations in 100 countries. But when Roche Canada colleagues saw the opportunity to establish a centre of excellence (CoE) for artificial intelligence, they knew the best home would be in Canada—exploring the idea from Roche’s Mississauga, Ontario pharmaceutical headquarters.

Why? Because the country is home to a small group of elite scientists who are mapping the future of AI, and Ontario has a robust AI ecosystem primed for innovation.

Embracing Ontario’s world-renowned AI ecosystem

“Long before anyone really understood the potential of AI, University of Toronto emeritus professor Geoffrey Hinton was pioneering the science here in Ontario,” explains Fanny Sie, who heads Roche’s new AI CoE, which launched in November 2020.

Thirty-plus years ago, Hinton was focused on making it possible for computers to learn. Back then, the idea was revolutionary. But the federal government was prepared to fund Hinton’s research, and it attracted the best and brightest scientific minds from Ontario and abroad.

Fanny Sie, Head of Roche’s AI Centre of Excellence
Fanny Sie, Head of Roche’s AI Centre of Excellence

As Hinton’s AI breakthroughs moved from the lab in Toronto to real-world applications, an innovation ecosystem—including corporate R&D centres and venture capital firms—grew up in the surrounding region. Today, Ontario is recognized worldwide as a leader in the field.

Roche’s virtual AI CoE will tap into that exceptional AI expertise. Now collaborating closely with Toronto’s Vector Institute, Roche’s AI CoE, together with the formidable talent at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and the Quebec AI Institute (Mila) as part of CIFAR’s Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, is driving digital transformation in health.

Sie was chosen to lead the Roche initiative because of her background in research and innovation—and her belief that collaboration spurs discovery. She’s excited about the potential for AI in general—and the CoE in particular—to improve and save people’s lives. And she’s driven to see rapid results.

AI helps to make decisions quickly,” she explains. “There’s so much information out there, in so many different formats, we can’t possibly go through it all manually. That’s where artificial intelligence and machine learning come in. We can use the power of computers to collect, sort and analyze data and make sense of it in a fraction of the time it would take humans.”

A timely case in point: When COVID-19 hit around the world, Roche Canada assembled the Data Science Coalition—a group of public and private organizations dedicated to working with the global community to bring actionable COVID-19 solutions to patients, frontline healthcare providers, institutions, supply chains and governments worldwide.

“Everyone in the Roche COVID-19 coalition has a superpower, and everyone recognized that this was a common challenge that couldn’t be solved without the others.”

A worker checking the stats on the data storage system at the Data Science Coalition facility
A worker checking the stats on the data storage system at the Data Science Coalition facility

Since its creation in April 2020, the coalition has been using AI to develop a comprehensive overview of what’s happening in different parts of the world. The AI then translates the results to be immediately useful to individual governments, health agencies and scientists. To date, the coalition’s work has contributed to over 100 digital solutions and insights into COVID-19.

“Combining technology and worldwide collaboration has shown us how we can get to the goal a lot faster,” says Sie. “It’s accelerated us into the future.”

Ontario’s culture of collaboration speeds discovery

It’s no accident that the driving force behind the coalition was Roche’s Canadian operation, headquartered in Ontario. The province’s groundbreaking AI research community has traditionally worked within a collaborative environment. In fact, it’s a hallmark of Ontario’s renowned life sciences sector.

“In Ontario, we’ve seen the results when we bring people together,” says Sie, a University of Toronto alumnus. “We’ve learned that collaboration is the most fruitful way to carry out science. By showing the way, the Roche COVID-19 Data Science Coalition is demonstrating how that can work on a global level—which will be necessary when we face the next worldwide emergency.”

The first major undertaking of Roche’s AI CoE is the End ALS Challenge, an open data competition that connects the global AI and neuroscience communities. The goal is to improve healthcare professionals’ understanding of the overall biology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and improve diagnosis and drug discovery. It’s the largest and most comprehensive ALS research project in history, producing more combined ALS clinical and biological data than has ever been amassed and openly sharing it with the global research community.

ALS is a devastating disease. The AI CoE and its research collaborators are eager to see what data-driven insights the End ALS Challenge produces using AI and machine learning—and what applications there might be for other neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.

Says Sie, “It’s a really exciting time to be in health care, particularly here in Ontario, where we’re driving digital transformation with the goal of improving people’s lives.”

June 9, 2021
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