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Immigrants of Tech- Sreya Francis

Our newest feature Immigrants in Tech highlights incredible stories of newcomers who are making a big impact in the Canadian tech ecosystem.

Meet Sreya, who we helped to place as Head, Technical Innovation at Farm Mutual Re.

-- Sreya brings her passion for innovation and her expertise in technology like machine learning to Farm Mutual Re. Previously, she's worked in smart home equipment, and medical AI teams, and has experience partnering with top brand names globally to make innovative technology accessible to all sectors.

What's your story?

I was born and brought up in India. I did my Bachelor's in Computer Science and

Engineering and then I worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence with a few tech companies including Wipro, Tata Elxsi, and Panasonic. My team and I were very lucky to be involved in interesting applied AI research projects like AI Robot Cleaner, Intelligent microwave ovens, Smart Refrigerators, etc. However, there came a point wherein I felt the urge to make a more meaningful contribution to the field of Artificial Intelligence than just confine myself to industrial applications of AI.

Some of the major pain points I observed with AI systems included:

Poor model generalization: AI systems give poor performance when deployed in an unseen environment.

Data insufficiency: Any AI system is only as good as the data it's been fed on. There are lots of privacy constraints with customer data that would prevent us from getting access to it.

Lack of data incentivization: I felt like all the big companies are making use of our personal data, but we're not getting paid for it.

As a solution to these pain points, I wanted to develop a privacy-preserving machine learning approach that generalizes to unseen environments and automatically incentivizes users/customers for the data contribution that they make.

With this goal in mind, I started looking for research opportunities in North America. I was lucky to get into Mila (Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute), which is a community of scientists and interdisciplinary teams committed to advancing AI for the benefit of all, and work with Professor Irina Rish, who is the Canada CIFAR AI Chair and the Canadian Excellence Research Chair in Autonomous AI and Professor Yoshua Bengio who is referred to as one of the ‘God fathers’ of AI. During my time at MILA, my team and I developed few research approaches to merge the fields of Causal Machine Learning, Privacy-Preserving Distributed Learning (Federated Learning), and Blockchain as an attempt to resolve the pain points I noted down back in Asia and presented the findings in the Privacy-preserving Machine Learning sectors of Top AI conferences worldwide.

After spending a few years doing core research in AI at Mila, I wanted to get back into the industry and make meaningful contributions that can have a positive impact on humanity. I connected with Artemis Canada and was offered the Head of Technical Innovation role at Farm Mutual Re last year. I'm presently concentrating on reinventing insurance for the digital generation with innovative technologies. That's my story in a nutshell!

What led you to choose Canada as the place that you wanted to build in?

That's a good question. I started looking for research opportunities back in 2017. At that time, Canada became the first country in the world to release a national AI strategy called the Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy. The federal government at that point of time had commissioned $125 million over five years to advance research and innovation in AI. This specific strategy has been instrumental in making Canada a global leader in the AI space. Through this strategy, created by global research organization CIFAR, funding was allocated to three of the largest AI research institutes in Canada: AMii in Edmonton, Alberta, MILA in Montreal, Quebec, and Vector Institute in Toronto, Ontario. The goal at that time was to recruit and retain the world's leading researchers in the field of AI and provide them with long-term dedicated research funding to support their research programs and help them train the next generation of AI leaders in Canada.

With all of that happening in Canada, I decided that I should join one of these institutes to enhance my leadership and research expertise in innovation. In early 2017, Forbes named Montreal ‘An Artificial Intelligence Powerhouse’ due to the combination of great universities, great companies (including a number of Silicon Valley companies that have established AI centers in Montreal), and Canada’s ethos of cooperation among elite minds. So for someone like me, who's interested in diving headfirst into AI and working on truly innovative cutting-edge tech, Canada and specifically Montreal wasn't just a good option, it was the best option!

What advice do you have for newcomers entering the Canadian tech ecosystem?

Canada is one of the most immigrant-friendly nations and it's also one of the most tech-savvy but then the first point that comes to my mind would be the simple and easy work permit application process. Partly due to the H1-B visa in the United States and partly due to the governmental policy to attract more top global talent, The Global Skill Strategy was launched by the Canadian Government, at the time when I was considering Canada, with the aim to encourage foreign investment and to incentivize companies to open offices and attract top talent in Canada.

Great innovation takes time, if you want to be part of that really innovative venture, then you need to stay in Canada for a few years. But then you cannot keep on waiting endlessly to really put down roots in your new home country. The fact that it's easy to apply to become a permanent resident in Canada is another confidence booster for immigrants.

And another point to highlight would be the tech ecosystem. Canada has lots of tech jobs at some of the world's biggest and most innovative companies like Shopify, Amazon, Uber, and US-based tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Canada also has massive homegrown tech companies and startups that offer lots of opportunities for anyone interested in making a mark in the Canadian tech ecosystem.

And finally, I would like to point out Canada’s advantage in AI. Canada has an ecosystem fueled by talent and innovation. Canada is ranked fourth out of 54 countries in the Global AI index for its global competitiveness in AI implementation, innovation, and investment and has a strong talent value proposition to support the growth of the AI workforce. A strong operating environment, innovation ecosystem, and positive investment climate give AI companies and newcomers the support, tools, and resources that they need to grow their AI and innovation expertise in Canada.

That said, life is not always a bed of roses for an immigrant/newcomer. As a newcomer, you will face many challenges and obstacles, but you will also get countless opportunities to learn and grow. One secret mantra that helped me throughout my journey is this quote by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It is all about inspiring action. Whether you have a desire to succeed or a fear of failure, the important thing is that you have the fuel for action.


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