AI AND MACHINE LEARNING: TESTFIRE LABS
The first inkling of Testfire Labs entered Dave Damer's head on Day 6 of a 10-day meditation retreat.
A couple of months before he had exited ThinkTel, the successful telecom company he founded in early 2003. He had some ideas "in his back pocket," a favourite place he stashes inspirations that come up on his path through business.
The retreat was a great experience that brought "great clarity," Damer says.
His inspiration? "We would take some recent developments in speech-to-text and machine learning and natural language processing and we would make a companion for business people so they wouldn’t have to, in my initial iteration this, stress about all the mental to-do lists we have.... They would be better at staying on top of things and prioritizing their daily activities."
With some consultation and working through the idea, the first product was narrowed down to Hendrix.ai, an intelligent companion who helps make meetings more productive.
Testfire Labs is one of a growing number of AI and machine learning companies setting up in Edmonton. AI and machine learning involves computers and machines that do tasks that would normally be considered to require human-level intelligence, dealing with complex data sets and in the case of machine learning, able to learn and improve without specific programming in a data set.
Testfire's Hendrix.ai uses data it gleans from meetings to give clients insights into possible actions and bottlenecks arising from those meetings. The client invites Hendrix to the meeting. Hendrix looks over the invitation to see if it is clear what the meeting is meant to accomplish, and whether participants have to do some pre-reading.
"He attends the meeting by phone, … he’s very passive, just taking notes.... He listens for things like names in close proximity to dates because those are probably action items or he’s looking for things that sound like action items, but don’t have a date and those are probably intentions and then he’s looking for things that sound like people have come to a conclusion, and those would be decisions," Damer says.
And Hendrix takes his insights further. If the company is huge and he finds meetings happening in two different offices are similar he may identify potential for collaboration. If action items aren't acted on, he may pinpoint a bottleneck. And if the same discussion keeps happening in every meeting, it may be an initiative that isn't going anywhere.
Testfire is still in startup territory. The company has a small space in the Startup Edmonton offices in the Mercer warehouse building on 104th Street. Damer has seven employees. By late November 2017 Hendrix was still in beta testing, but the 20 or so clients trying out the meeting helper included giant construction firm PCL and the City of Victoria.
Although Testfire is a new kid on the block, Damer is not. He's a testament to home-grown entrepreneurship in Edmonton.
The 49-year-old graduated from the University of Alberta in computer engineering. He worked at IBM and telecommunications companies Sprint and Telus. He was involved in other startups. The most successful, ThinkTel, started as a long distance wholesaler, designed to help sports clubs raise money and morphed over time into a telephone carrier. It hit a bump raising money during the downturn of 2008 and was sold to an Ontario firm. Damer stayed on as CEO until 2016.
Damer has stayed in his hometown throughout his career, and he has seen the changes happen in the tech industry and particularly the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He is employing two people out of the University of Alberta's AI stream, one an undergraduate and the other with a masters in machine learning.
"What we’re doing with the university programs and the kind of talent we're churning out is definitely beneficial," Damer says.
There is still a need for investment capital, he says. While there are matching fund programs for developing firms, more seed capital is needed.
Damer says he is in Testfire for the long haul and he doesn't intend that it will stay small for long. Hendrix.AI won't be on his own forever. "Out of Hendrix are coming all sorts of products. I would say we’re building systems that have an invisible user interface. Instead of another application, you have on your phone or computer that you have to fuss with, we’re building systems you can just call ... or chat or email or text message.... They give you access to data and answers and research and they help you with your day.
"My intention with Testfire is to build up a very large shop here, and by large I mean something on the order of hundreds of employees."