Artificial intelligence (AI) is fundamentally changing how people do business — and introducing challenges that would have been unimaginable just five years ago. So before major corporations take their first steps in designing or adopting AI tools, they call U of T Engineering alumnus Alex Grbic.
After 10 years in Silicon Valley where he led teams at chip manufacturing giants Altera and Intel, Grbic (CompE 9T4, MASc 9T6, PhD 0T3) recently took on a new career opportunity and returned to Toronto. The city is earning a reputation as a hotbed of machine learning research and entrepreneurship, and Grbic is capitalizing on that momentum in a new role.
In July 2018, he joined Deloitte Canada as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in its artificial intelligence practice, Omnia AI, where he is building a group to develop AI software solutions to emerging business challenges.
“What Deloitte recognized was that more and more of our clients were asking the firm to help them on their AI journey,” says Grbic. “Some are interested in developing strategies that include the use of new technologies, while others want to differentiate themselves from competitors with solutions.”
The new practice builds upon the firm’s professional services history of making sense of large and valuable data. Omnia AI is made up of over 300 experts who advise and implement AI-based strategies, data and analytics, and end-products for a wide range of clients, from big banks, to energy and resources companies, to health care providers. They come to him with challenges that are sometimes classical in nature, and sometimes challenges that are indicative of the times, such as cyber security.
“For me, the exciting thing about being a part of this team is taking some of the technologies I’ve built in my previous careers and applying them to real problems, and doing that across a number of industries,” he says.
In Toronto’s increasingly crowded tech ecosystem, Omnia AI sets itself apart, says Grbic. Traditionally, professional services companies have provided consulting and advising. “But actually delivering an asset? That’s rare,” he says. Delivering an AI asset, from concept to product, is even more rare.
To Grbic, the business case was clear and concrete: AI allows companies to implement changes, from sweeping to the seemingly small. These practical solutions streamline routine processes and at the same time provide valuable business insights.
For example, Omnia AI recently developed an AI-enabled contract management solution for legal departments of clients, automating the contracting process and providing valuable insights to reduce business risk.
For health care clients, they developed SmartMD, which uses AI to transcribe patient-physician interactions in real-time to auto-populate medical records. It then takes this information and mines a patient’s health record for insights on diagnoses and treatment recommendations.
“I’d like to think that organizations like ours help people move from the research space, away from that hype, and into something that is more practical,” says Grbic.
In addition to his business acumen, Grbic brings deep expertise and a longstanding fascination for high-performance computing.
For his PhD research, he worked in the area of large supercomputers under the supervision of Professor Zvonko Vranesic (ECE). At Altera, a leading producer of field-programmable gate array (FPGA) devices, he led a team that used FPGAs to develop specialized, accelerated computing solutions. And as vice president of product marketing and planning in the programmable solutions at Intel, the bigger picture became obvious to him. “People started to realize that this type of accelerated computing could really play a huge role in AI.”
Grbic felt the natural next step in his career was to hone in on AI, a decision that led him back to his hometown of Toronto.
“I thought, hey, this is a great time to make a bit of a shift in my career and look for opportunities where I can help customers take advantage of data with AI,” he says. “Then I asked myself, where are those opportunities? There’s Silicon Valley, sure. But in terms of fast growth, high-tech cities — Toronto is near the top of the list.”
Grbic says he is looking forward to what the future holds for AI and how its advancements will ripple through Omnia AI and the city’s tech industry. “The rate of change is increasing. And when you think of the talent here in Toronto… what a great place to be working in AI.”