Science and Technology Business

Innovative company creates ‘synthetic cities’ to help solve future problems before they happen

Powered by U of A grads, RunWithIt Synthetics uses machine learning to help clients anticipate the complex reality their projects will operate in.

  • December 01, 2020
  • By Michael Brown

When RunWithIt Synthetics set out to apply synthetic modelling to predict the impact future disruptions might have on energy grids—such as uptake in electric vehicles, GHG emission reduction targets, energy efficiency, better battery storage, cybersecurity threats, photovoltaics and even disasters—they turned to the University of Alberta. 

“The U of A has a particular talent at attracting some of the best and brightest from Edmonton, Canada and around the world.”
Myrna Bittner, founder and CEO, RWI Synthetics

More specifically, they turned to electrical engineering professor Hao Liang, Canada Research Chair in Intelligent Energy Systems, to validate their assumptions about energy grid behaviour. But more important, they turned to their 19-member team—all but two of whom graduated from the U of A.

“The U of A has a particular talent at attracting some of the best and brightest from Edmonton, Canada and around the world,” said Myrna Bittner, founder and CEO of RWI Synthetics.

“We have a stack of resumés of grads that we hope to hire as we grow. They're enthusiastic, creative, super talented, very humble people—all the things we really need to do some of this groundbreaking work.”

Bittner attended the U of A, chasing a bachelor of arts degree with an MBA, which she completed in 1993. However, even before she finished her MBA, Bittner created her first AI company.

“We were trying to solve future problems back when the internet was only a year old,” she said. “There is a huge need for very complex technologies to get better at the future.”

Two business iterations of that theme later and Bittner landed on her current endeavour, which is about to turn seven years old.

Some of those problems inspired her search for future solutions that may have helped with issues that can plague massive online projects before they go live.

“There were some really fundamental flaws in these really large-scale systems that we thought, ‘If we could characterize reality for them, they could get better at it before they went live.’”

Building synthetic cities

From building realities around very complex global digital systems to help them experience the real world before they get there, the company has now found a niche plying mounds of data into machine learning to create synthetic cities.

When simulating how a power outage might exacerbate the pandemic, Bittner’s group was able to detect everything from who and what jurisdictions are the most vulnerable, where the stresses on the emergency system lie and what the health outcomes might be to GHG emissions, GDP losses and even how the population would value power reliability. This project landed them as international winners of the Electric Power Research Institute’s 2020 Incubatenergy Labs Challenge. 

“We simulate questions or experiments that people are wanting to understand the ‘what if,’” she said.

In 2019, RWI Synthetics was funded by the National Research Council to develop synthetic cities in the area of energy. More recently, it was included as the industry partner on a project with Hao Liang funded by a NSERC Alliance Grant to extend their work addressing the impact of COVID-19 on resilience in the power grid.

But their work with the U of A began in 2016 with a project in professor Eleni Stroulia's Computing Science 401 class, tackling a problem with a customer's data.

“That was really engaging, just amazing students and super hard workers,” Bittner said. “I think our project won the class’s most complicated project award.”

More recently, Bittner has also hired through the university’s Graduate Student Internship Program, which provides subsidized student placements.

Bittner said because what they do is so cutting-edge, there's a lot of investment in training, so it’s important for them to understand whether a candidate is going to be successful.

And so far, so good. Their first intern ended up working with the company full-time, and now they have a second student through the program.

“Working with student interns offers us a way to mitigate our risk in getting to know these candidates and being able to better understand where they might best be suited in our organization,” she said.

Great ideas change the world, but ideas need a push forward. At the University of Alberta, we know that push has never been more important as we do our part to rebuild Alberta and keep doors of opportunity open to all. We're making research discoveries. We’re cultivating entrepreneurs. And we’re giving our students the knowledge and skills they need to turn today's ideas into tomorrow's innovations. Read more stories about U of A innovators.