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ECE alumna Mai Mavinkurve is the co-founder of an artificial intelligence startup and an advocate for Canadian technology and transparent data governance (Photo credit: Jessica MacInnis)

U of T Engineering alumna Mai Mavinkurve (CompE 0T3) believes that with big data comes big responsibility.

“There is immense value in data,” says Mavinkurve, an artificial intelligence (AI) entrepreneur and data rights advocate. “The people, companies and societies who figure out how to harness it will be successful.”

As an engineering undergraduate, Mavinkurve had her sights set on getting an MBA and moving to Silicon Valley. But family commitments kept her in Toronto and after graduation she found herself working for a small Toronto-based startup called Epoch Integration.

Epoch, a software company that helped clients manage wireless networks, was eventually acquired by Research in Motion (now Blackberry). By that time, Mavinkurve was firmly entrenched in the Canadian tech space and had caught the entrepreneurial bug.

Mavinkurve and her business partner launched Sightline Innovation, an applied AI company that helps businesses improve productivity by using machine learning to make better decisions — without the need to hire expert developers.

“We work with companies from a variety of sectors,” says Mavinkurve. “For example, we have manufacturing clients who use our service to better analyze products for quality control and health care clients who use our software to do genetic analysis of people with peanut allergies.”

Sightline’s initial product, SIMON, is a software platform that allows customers to use a point-and-click interface to access AI software. It makes machine learning tools more accessible to businesses that have not traditionally specialized in this area.

“This product incorporates both visual and language understanding of the data,” says Mavinkurve. “It provides AI data management, learning and prediction, and enterprise deployment.”

Mavinkurve is also involved in issues regarding big data governance and ethics. As both her business and Toronto’s reputation as a leader in AI have grown, Mavinkurve had come to feel that these were emerging challenges for governments, businesses and individuals. Sightline has created a second product, SID, to help enterprises engage with these issues.

“SID is a technology framework that enables clients to maintain control and sovereignty of their data assets between data partners,” says Mavinkurve. “I think the public is starting to see how valuable data really is.”

Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Hon. Navdeep Bains tapped Mavinkurve to sit on one of his ISED Economic Strategy Tables on digital technology. She led the subgroup that developed data trust and intellectual property recommendations.

“Data is an asset, plain and simple,” says Mavinkurve. “And I think it’s important to have a framework in place that ensures that if our data is being harvested, we get the value from it — as a country and as individuals.”

Sightline is a member of the Canadian Council of Innovators (CCI), a business council that focuses on helping high-growth Canadian technology firms scale-up globally. CCI brings Canadian tech leaders and public-policy leaders together to help shape the country’s innovation agenda.

For Mavinkurve, good data policy is good for business, and not just as a co-founder of an AI startup. “Machine learning requires data: you feed the algorithm data and it learns from that data,” says Mavinkurve. “The value for companies is being able to take that information and use it to provide better services.”

But Mavinkurve believes that it’s critical that companies use the data in a way that is trusted by their customers. “Data harvesting is being challenged and now responsibility around data and machine learning practices will have to become the norm,” says Mavinkurve. “AI is having to grow up, come out of the lab and deal with real-world problems like data rights.”

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