U of A launches new fund to ignite innovative ideas

Donor-supported fund will invest in startup ventures solving complex challenges and diversifying Alberta’s economy.


(From left) U of A president Bill Flanagan, RLCore co-investor Tiffany Linke-Boyko, RLCore CEO Martha White, Innovation Fund CEO Sheetal Mehta Walsh, and Innovation Fund board chair and donor Darin Rayburn were at the U of A's Enterprise Square campus to officially launch the Innovation Fund supporting startup ventures and entrepreneurs. (Photo: Laughing Dog Photography)

The University of Alberta has launched a new fund to invest in startup ventures working to solve complex challenges facing the world and diversify Alberta’s economy, providing much-needed funding and additional support for innovators and entrepreneurs.

The University of Alberta Innovation Fund, supported by private donors and public partners, will work with startups to mobilize the university’s research expertise, innovation and creativity.

“The Innovation Fund will help position the University of Alberta as a global leader in advancing the commercialization of research that will spur economic growth and improve lives,” says U of A president Bill Flanagan. “It will create jobs across Alberta and beyond, diversifying our economy and enriching the university’s long-standing culture of innovation — all while inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.”

Expected to grow over time to $50 million through donor support, the fund empowers innovative startups from the U of A and beyond to unlock their potential through access to financial support, mentorship and expertise, allowing them to move from concept to reality.

Capitalizing on research excellence

“The fund will focus on innovations in artificial intelligence, health, energy and agriculture, all areas of outstanding research strength at the University of Alberta,” adds Flanagan. “This is an important part of the larger vision outlined in the university's strategic plan, Shape: A Strategic Plan of Impact, and will help us increase our research impact over the next decade.”

“The University of Alberta’s Innovation Fund will attract more talent and directly contribute to Alberta’s thriving tech and innovation ecosystem, validating our growing reputation as Canada’s preferred destination for innovation,” says Nate Glubish, minister of technology and innovation, who was on hand at a launch event at the university’s Enterprise Square campus Oct. 17 to announce the Government of Alberta‘s commitment to contribute $500,000 to the fund.

As an independent entity with its own board, the fund will conduct due diligence and recommend investment opportunities to the U of A in startups that benefit Albertans, providing returns on investment, which the university will pay forward by reinvesting in future innovations.

Companies chosen by the fund will receive access to strategic networks, initial and followup financial support and opportunities to enter global markets, says Sheetal Mehta Walsh, CEO of the fund.

“In addition, they will be encouraged to engage with all the supports our province has to offer so we can champion made-in-Alberta successes on a global scale,” she says.

The ventures will also receive extra support through in-person and online education sessions on business topics such as entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Along with that, the fund’s innovation portal, an online community platform, provides further opportunities to access information and resources and share ideas.

Led by seasoned senior executives and key advisers with investment expertise, the fund team also includes undergraduate students from a cross-section of U of A faculties, Walsh notes.

“This helps establish a culture of mentorship and an entrepreneurial mindset across disciplines, ensuring that students gain the skills and connections needed to become our next generation of entrepreneurs.”

First investment will advance ambitious AI startup

The support offered through the Innovation Fund will be instrumental to propelling their AI research into the marketplace, where it can make a meaningful difference, says U of A researcher Martha White, CEO and co-founder of RL Core Technologies, the first company chosen for investment.

“We’re going for something ambitious that can have a very high impact,” says White, associate professor in the Faculty of Science and Canada CIFAR AI Chair at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.

The budding Edmonton-based company uses a data-driven AI approach called reinforcement learning (RL) to improve the efficiency and performance of industrial control systems.

The machine-learning technique constantly adapts in real time to deliver significantly better functioning than control parameters that are manually set by engineers.

Through research based in the U of A’s Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Lab and led by White and her partner, Adam White, RL is currently being used to reduce energy use in drinking water treatment, and the company plans to eventually expand its AI approach to other applications, such as smart heating and cooling systems.

“The potential applications of the technology are so exciting,” says Adam, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Science. “We envision a scenario where we could plug into control systems across industries, where there is already some level of automation. That could have a huge impact.”

Besides making such systems more sustainable and energy efficient, the AI can make these systems more autonomous, freeing up operators to focus on less routine, more critical maintenance tasks, he adds.

“The more we can do to make something like a water treatment system more autonomous, the more likely it is to work well in a remote community, where an operator may only need to visit periodically.”

Along with expert business development advice and financial support, the networking opportunities offered through the fund will be especially valuable to RLCore, Martha says.

“Having strong connections to find implementation partners will help us improve and bring RL into many different sectors.

“We are excited to be the first company chosen for the Innovation Fund,” she adds. “As graduate students and then academics at the U of A, the university has given us so much over the years, and we feel part of the team, so it seems natural to take on our venture in this partnership with the university. The connections are going to be really beneficial.”