Royal Canadian Navy hosts “Ideas Hack-a-thon” at Techstars Toronto

Navy News / February 14, 2018

As Canadian academics, scientists and entrepreneurs continue to push the envelope in the research and commercialization of technologies associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) hosted its first-ever “Ideas Hack-a-thon” on February 10, 2018 in partnership with Techstars Toronto.

The “Ideas Hack-a-thon” was facilitated by Sunil Sharma, Managing Director of Techstars Toronto, a local entrepreneurial accelerator, and engaged more than a dozen local entrepreneurs, all of whom are active in the AI sector. Mr. Sharma is a former Canadian Foreign Service Officer who cut his teeth in the Canadian start-up ecosystem as a Managing Partner of Extreme Venture Partners. Also participating was Mark McQueen, an Honorary Captain of the RCN and President and Executive Managing Director of CIBC Innovation Banking. 

The goal of this exciting day was to gather a diverse group of individuals in an effort to help the RCN introduce practical applications of AI into the daily work of its sailors, whether at sea or at home.

With the help of Techstars Toronto, a volunteer “crew” was drawn from an invited pool of Ontario-based academics, entrepreneurs, scientists and students with an expertise or affinity for various applications of AI. The “crew” included officers of the RCN’s Naval Reserve unit in Toronto, HMCS York, as well as key leaders of the RCN’s Ottawa-based information technology team.

The participation of these Reserve and Regular force members of the RCN was invaluable to their fellow “crew” members as they shared their personal experiences at sea in humanitarian, search and rescue, and NATO-led missions. 

“For more than a century, across a broad range of defence and security challenges – from humanitarian assistance and disaster response at home or abroad to a major regional or global conflict – the RCN has exemplified its motto of ‘Ready Aye Ready’,” said Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, Commander, RCN. “That said, if we are going to continue to be the most rapidly deployable and versatile instrument of national power, the RCN needs to ensure that we continue to adapt to the ever-changing landscape. Through this ‘Ideas Hack-a-thon’, we are hoping to harness some of the energy and ingenuity in Canada’s fast-growing AI sector. If we succeed in this effort, our sailors will be better prepared than ever to fulfill our mission on behalf of Canada, and we’ll have the pleasure of helping Canadian entrepreneurs take their companies to the next level.”

The “crew” was asked to generate practical applications of AI in four distinct areas of relevance to the RCN:

  •           Administration / database analysis
  •           Recruiting
  •           Training
  •           Defensive undersea warfare

“Whether it be how we analyze sonar findings at sea or the method we use to answer simple personnel questions via email, there are a variety of opportunities where the RCN can capitalize on recent advancements in AI,” said Commodore Casper Donovan, Director General of Naval Force Development.

“Our Fellows appreciate the opportunity to learn with the RCN and private sector as new technologies become ever more important,” added the Hon. Hugh Segal, Principal of Massey College and a participant in the day’s events. “As an Honorary Naval Captain, it is inspiring to see the RCN learn from some of the region’s most energetic entrepreneurs.”

“We appreciated the opportunity to work with Admiral Lloyd and his sailors in this unique setting,” added Mr. Sharma. “I know our Techstars entrepreneurs, as well as the Massey College family, were energized by the opportunity to work with Canada’s navy on some interesting AI challenges. As an Angel investor and entrepreneur, the RCN could represent the perfect anchor client for many of Canada’s most promising early stage AI start-ups. This ‘Ideas Hack-a-thon’ was a great example of the exciting things that are going on in the Canadian start-up ecosystem. Entrepreneurs will relish the chance to test some new technologies in partnership with the RCN.”