U of T news

Toronto emerging as centre of innovation - and disruption, OMERS venture fund CEO says

Toronto's startup scene has exploded in recent years, particularly in fields like financial technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning (photo by Jamie McCaffrey via Flickr)

Fresh off closing a $300 million venture fund with a buy-in from some of Canada’s biggest banks and financial institutions, John Ruffolo will be at the University of Toronto on Friday to talk about how developments in artificial intelligence, fintech and machine learning are rapidly disrupting traditional industries.

Ruffolo is the CEO of OMERS Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System pension fund. He's scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the Funding Innovation Conference hosted by U of T’s Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab, one of 10 business accelerators on campus. 

Learn more about the conference

U of T News spoke with Ruffolo about how Canada – and Toronto in particular – landed on the VC world’s radar, and how we can best take advantage of our leadership in AI, machine learning and other high-demand fields. 

(photo of John Ruffolo courtesy of OMERS)

You made news this week after closing your third venture fund. What sort of appetite are you seeing for this type of investment and how does it compare to when OMERS Ventures launched six years ago?

There have been two big developments. When you see who has joined forces with us, it’s a recognition by some of the leading companies in this country that their businesses are being disrupted. That wasn’t the situation six years ago. So if you want proof that people are thinking about it, and focused on it, that’s it.

Number two: not only are these big Canadian companies recognizing their businesses are being disrupted, they’re realizing the solutions to that disruption are right here in this country. The thing that surprised me was the amount of [investment interest] we had from companies in Canada and from around the world – these are people who think Toronto is the place to come and find solutions. That’s very new.

How new? Within the last five years?

I would say two.

So does that speak to the pace of the disruption?

It’s speaking to the pace of the disruption, but it’s also speaking to the fact the startup community in and around Toronto is also moving at an accelerated pace – and the rest of the world is finally starting to realize it.

What sorts of companies will OMERS Ventures be targeting? 

Fintech is one. Another is the future of work, which includes robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Also, the future of transportation – autonomous vehicles – and the future of retail, which is e-commerce and those sorts of things.

The last one is synthetic biology, which, again, involves artificial intelligence, genomics and machine learning.

Those are five areas where we’ve got world class companies.

In the past you’ve talked about the challenges Canada faces when it comes to scaling up startups into big, market-dominating companies. What are we doing well here in Toronto and which areas need more work?

Toronto, generally speaking, doesn’t have a startup problem. We’re seeing great entrepreneurship, great innovation and the complexity of the technologies we’re building are incredible. So there are lots of positives.

The fundamental issue is on the scaling-up side, so we can compete in global markets. We need a lot of work there. One of the biggest challenges I see is we haven’t had a lot people who have the expertise – people who have been there and done that. That’s an ongoing challenge.

Lately there's been a lot of buzz about AI and machine learning, where U of T is leading research. What's your take on the future of this space?

Back in the ‘90s people asked, “Are you on the Web?” Now everyone’s on the Web. In the 2000s, the same thing happened with being "mobile-first." Now people are asking, “Are you using artificial intelligence?”

This is really about using computer-based processes and technology to replace repetitive human tasks. So it’s going to be pervasive. It will be in everything. It will be in every single business we’re going to invest in.

Read more about innovation, entrepreneurship and startups at the University of Toronto