Originally published on Alberta Venture on December 18, 2018.
Takeaway: Testfire is vying to change the way the world does business, all from its its Edmonton home base.
Dave Damer had a great 14-year run as CEO of Thinktel Communications Ltd., the IP-based business telecommunications company he founded in 2003. He took the company from one office and a few employees in Edmonton to more than 100 employees and revenues over $25 million. It was an exciting run, but one thing that did not bring him a lot of joy was the number of meetings running a company involved. While the ones at Thinktel were mostly productive, Damer’s 27 years of business experience told him that many employees and managers believe meetings can be a waste of time.
So when Damer left Thinktel in 2016, he was out for something new to sink his start-up teeth into. Six days into a 10-day meditation retreat, an idea came to him. Technically, his idea would be to use artificial intelligence (AI) to make the daily tasks of running and managing a business easier. That general thought led to more focused plans for the first project of his next start-up: to help fix the business meeting.
“Fundamentally, meetings themselves haven't changed in hundreds of years. They are pretty much the same format. We've added some technology to bring remote people in, but we don't really do anything radically different in meetings, which is shocking” says Dave Damer, now CEO of Testfire Labs, an artificial intelligence development company in Edmonton. “That’s why there's all the jokes that people have about meetings are kind of like the movie, 'Groundhog Day.' You just feel like you're having the same one over and over and over again.”
On one hand, meetings can be very productive events; they can provide solid direction from management, allow for input from grassroots and even spark innovation and camaraderie among employees. On the other hand, meetings can also be dreary affairs, with a focus on structure rather than content so no one is really sure what has been accomplished or what the results of the meeting actually are. Also, certain voices can dominate the discussion and people can come out of meetings unheard or unwilling to contribute. The expression “we had a meeting for the sake of having a meeting” is a bit too common in our modern world.
To help meetings become more productive and compelling for companies, governments and their staff, including managers and executives, Testfire harnessed AI to created Hendrix, an system designed to improve the quality of meetings and their outcomes. Using natural language processing and machine learning, Hendrix attends meetings through a computer or smart phone but does not take an active role. Instead, Hendrix transcribes the meeting and then creates a summary of what happened.
“It makes it easy for you to just be in the meeting, but stay focused and attentive. You're not scrambling to take notes. You're just participating in the conversation, so it's more about being present,” Damer said.
But that’s only the beginning of what Hendrix can offer. Hendrix sends its summary of a meeting to everyone who attended in order to identify tasks, understands action plans and determine who is responsible for doing the work.
It didn’t take long between the founding of Testfire in 2017 to the official project launch of Hendrix in the Fall of 2018. But in that time, Testfire grew from Damer’s meditation brainstorm to a company with 16 employees and a Startup Canada Regional Innovation Award under its belt. The company has also beta tested Hendrix with more than 100 organizations, from small start ups who have a few hours of meetings a month to large organizations such as NAIT, the City of Victoria and Deloitte Canada, which can have hundred or thousands of meeting hours per month.
“Any fractional increase in efficiency, risk mitigation, productivity, you know, every half a percentage point they can get out of people's time, equates to millions and millions of dollars,” Damer said.
A native Edmontonian, Damer graduated from the University of Alberta and has been involved in five start-ups. But the one constant in his career has been where he sets up his businesses: Edmonton. Despite opportunities to work elsewhere and expansion of other businesses to more cities, Edmonton remains Damer’s home, and not just because he was born, raised and schooled in Alberta’s capital.
Edmonton is becoming a major hub for artificial intelligence, not just for Canada, but for the world. In 2017, CSRankings placed the the University of Alberta second in the world in the area of artificial intelligence and machine learning in terms of publications in top venues. The university is also home to the Advanced Man-Made Interfaces Laboratory (AMMI), which is working on a wide array of projects connected to AI, including medical interfaces, virtual reality simulations, image-based systems, cognitive modeling and natural language processing.
“It's great to have that in our backyard,” says Damer, adding that the university's lead in AI development not only allows for connection with researchers but provides graduates in AI looking for jobs in Edmonton.
The only potential stumbling block of turning Edmonton into an international hub of private AI development, Damer says, is funding. With the strength of the U of A and subsequent government funding, there is plenty of public funding for AI development, but venture capital from the private sector is lacking, he said.
“I think the key thing here locally is getting people that already invest in the economy. They've invested in real estate. They've invested in oil and gas. They've invested in infrastructure kind of things. They're not typically comfortable investing in technology companies, so we don't have the capital flow,” he says. “It seems daunting and it is kind of daunting, but it's so much opportunity for us to take some of the things that we are doing successfully, locally here now, and to start to export them or bring them to new markets.”