Woman reading while in the driver’s seat of a self-driving vehicle.

On choosing Toronto, Ontario, thanks to its deep talent pool, good investment environment and diversity

The word “Waabi” has a couple of different meanings. In Japanese, it translates to “beauty of simplicity,” while it means “she has vision” in Ojibwe. Hence, “Waabi” perfectly encapsulates Dr. Raquel Urtasun’s startup—she has a vision to simplify autonomous vehicles.

Waabi logo

There’s no mistaking the excitement in Urtasun’s voice when she talks about self-driving technology and her new company Waabi, which she launched in Toronto in June 2021.

A global superstar in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the University of Toronto professor raised $100 million in the first round of financing, one of the largest for any Canadian tech startup.

Among the high-profile investors are Silicon Valley-based Khosla Ventures, 8VC Radical Ventures, Aurora Innovation, BDC Capital’s Women in Technology Venture Fund, OMERS Ventures and Uber, where Urtasun served as chief scientist of the company’s self-driving division, Uber ATG.

Dr. Raquel Urtasun
Dr. Raquel Urtasun, founder and CEO of Waabi, is one of only three women at the helm of a self-driving company.

It’s a vote of confidence in Waabi’s innovative approach to autonomous vehicle development, one that promises to speed up the process, which traditionally eventually gets bogged down in complexity.

“There’s a need for new technology, and I have a very clear vision of what it is,” says Urtasun. Her company uses a “new generation of AI algorithms that combine deep learning, probabilistic inference and complex optimization” that will make it possible to “generalize and learn from a small amount of data.”

“Our novel simulation system is less capital-intensive and requires much less on-road driving to develop and refine,” explains Urtasun. “All of which means we can advance our technology in a faster, cheaper and safer way.”


Toronto, Ontario: steering the self-driving revolution

Long-haul truck
Waabi’s technology will first be applied to the automation of long-haul trucks, a sector beset by safety issues and driver shortages.

There was never any doubt in Urtasun’s mind that Waabi would be headquartered in Toronto. The Spanish native was lured to the city in 2014 from Chicago, where she was an assistant professor with the Toyota Technological Institute.

“Toronto is a technology hub,” she says. “I was drawn by the depth of AI experience here, which is really unparalleled.”

Some of that talent is homegrown, thanks to a network of world-class universities, including the University of Toronto, an acknowledged leader in the field of AI. But there are many like Urtasun who are attracted from abroad because Toronto is where transformative technologies are being developed.

“The best and brightest research minds go to where the action is,” she says. “Diversity is so important when you’re looking for solutions to big problems like self-driving. Bringing different perspectives speeds innovation.” It also creates a perfect self-perpetuating cycle.

Waabi’s 40+ employees hail from more than 10 countries across four continents. And, like Urtasun, they stay because of the opportunity to change the world—and because they fall in love with the city.

“Toronto is such a cosmopolitan and welcoming place. From the start, I felt at home here. It’s also where my team wants to be, so establishing Waabi here was a no-brainer. I love Toronto, and my goal is to put the city—and the province—at the forefront of self-driving.”

A robust investment climate

Aerial view of the Toronto skyline and the Financial District, with Lake Ontario and the Toronto Islands in the background.
Toronto is the second-most promising investment location in the Americas, according to the Financial Times’ fDi Intelligence report for 2021-22.
Credit: © Destination Toronto

Also vital to the success of a startup like Waabi is a good investment environment. Toronto delivers that as well. “Investors here are sophisticated. They understand transformative technologies and the importance of moving them from the academic world to the real world.”

Urtasun is convinced that self-driving is one of the most exciting and important technologies of our generation. “Once solved at scale, it will change the world as we know it,” she contends. “And Waabi is going to be at the forefront of that change.”

If she’s successful—and there’s every reason to believe she will be—one of the most important industries in the world will be based in Ontario.