A startup that uses artificial “brains” to detect infectious diseases & more.
We spoke with Wally Trenholm, the inspiring young CEO of Sightline Innovation now based in Winnipeg.
In 2006, Wally sold his previous company based in Ontario to RIM, the famous Canadian company behind BlackBerry, and decided to take a year off. In that year, he began what would become one of the biggest machine learning companies in Canada.
Where did the idea come from to develop artificial “brains”?
During his year off, Wally started doing financial trading and building automated trading systems to help make better decisions. Because the financial market was so complex, he had to program all the different outcomes that could happen. That programming sometimes worked out very well and helped make a lot of money, while other times the programming couldn’t capture all the variables in fluctuating markets, and money was lost.
Machine learning began to arise as a potential opportunity to increase the programming accuracy and produce better results. The algorithms could learn about these complex problems and variables to make better decisions. And from this application of machine learning, his new company was beginning to take shape.
Wally describes the seemingly complex technology:
“Machine learning is a term used to describe a bag of algorithms around artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is simply something that pretends to be intelligent that is not a biological type of system. So machine learning is an implementation of that, or a bunch of algorithms that implement that type of functionality, mostly centered around work that was done in the 90s or early 2000s.”
He realized the same technology could be used in quality control verification for manufacturing. Using sensors and simulated artificial brains, they could make sure that humans weren’t making mistakes, especially where mistakes can be very costly.
Applying those same principles into other types of verification, there could be improvements in quality control for the healthcare industry and eventually in border-entry decisions, which could include detecting infectious diseases when people cross into other countries.
How did the company grow to such great heights?
In 2009, Wally started Sightline Innovation with his partners, originally as a consultancy company.
But they wanted to take the startup to a higher level and make the transition to building products. So in 2011, Sightline became a product-based business, raising capital through angel investors to help fund their new corporate direction.
They began to use the machine based learning technology in the manufacturing industry. Using a set of cameras on production lines, the tech could detect when parts were faulty or not up to standards, helping to improve quality-control that would otherwise take more human resources and time that might not be anywhere near as efficient.
A physician friend pointed out how the same technology on a smaller scale could detect Ebola. After they had discussed it further the team realized how much potential existed in this field, and they set up a meeting with the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg — a meeting the CEO describes as stressful. It could make or break his dreams to evolve the company in an entirely new industry.
Fortunately, the outcome was very positive. He and his partners realized that in order to transform from only a quality-control manufacturing business into something that could detect medical decisions, outcomes and conditions, they needed to be close to an ecosystem where there was a lot of talent and resources in that space. And Winnipeg fit perfectly into this vision.
What did Winnipeg offer that Ontario couldn’t?
“Winnipeg is the home of the world’s leading infectious disease laboratory and there are a lot of people here that have that unique experience. So we moved here to capitalize on that.”
“After we moved, we realized there were a lot of skilled programmers here, much to our surprise. I honestly did not expect that.”
“And we realized that the engineers that we were hiring here were better en masse than what we had in Ontario, so we moved our entire R&D operation here within that same year.”
Manitoba’s developer community was an advantage that helped build Sightline into a strong organization, as Wally goes on to describe.
“I think we have the best 20-person development team in the country.”
“Building a 20-person machine learning development team in Ontario would be extremely hard. I can’t exactly tell you why it worked out here, but I know that it has something to do with the people, the culture and the things that making doing business in a unified community like Winnipeg, better than doing it in a market like Ontario.”
He’s been quoted saying that Manitoba has the ability to offer 300% productivity at 80% cost and 10% hassle. “The productivity gains come from the spirit of collaboration that is here in Manitoba. It has a unique environment where people seem to have a vested interest in a common, shared achievement. And that doesn’t exist in Ontario.”
“The future of the startup community in Winnipeg is very bright.”
Why is the technology behind Sightline so pivotal in Canadian innovation?
“Now we have a new term called “deep learning” which is the next layer of mathematics put on top of machine learning. And interestingly, deep learning is a Canadian-born technology. Most people record the birth of deep learning in 2006 at the University of Toronto.”
“Deep learning is basically the proper mathematical modeling of the way the visual cortex works. We can use that to simulate perception for cameras, pictures, genes or DNA – essentially what we do.”
“It’s the most important scientific contribution Canada will ever make.”
“It’s an enabling technology, like the discovery of the transistor, the diode, or any of these other fundamental things that change society as a whole, like the Internet. It’s a unique moment and opportunity for Canada.”
What advice can you give on raising capital & finding investors as a startup business?
As CEO of a burgeoning company, Wally has had to hustle to find investment. “Raising capital is quite hard to understand what needs to be done until you go through it.”
He offers some important steps to getting investments:
- Define what your business does to develop a solid, crisp product definition
- Build the investor pitch deck to get your message very tight
- Practice pitching it to people
- Continue your practice pitch until people don’t object — That’s when you’re ready to go out and hit the market with your pitch.
How do you stay passionate about your business?
Not only does he look for potential investors, but in this role Wally wears a lot of hats and is always learning. He’s recently become interested in writing patents and is currently taking online patent classes, as well as learning about tax code and accounting.
You can tell the passion in his voice when he speaks about his business. “It’s really a joy — I love my work. I get to learn whatever I want, and I have a team of very skilled people in technology and science. The quest for wearing different hats and trying to do a decent job at it is something I find very challenging and enjoyable.”
Of course, such a busy startup CEO takes a little downtime here and there on the weekends, but Wally’s passion for Sightline’s vision continues.
“I can’t wait till Monday starts.” Not everyone can say that.
For more inspiring stories about local business, visit the Manitoba Business Stories section of the Business Hub.