Innovation and excellence in Edmonton: Nicole Janssen and AltaML are leaders in artificial intelligence

As a teen, Nicole Janssen sold piggy banks shaped like bears. 

It was part of an Edmonton business she started for Junior Achievement, which encourages high school students to start their own companies. For her efforts, she won a national Achiever of the Year award. At the ceremony, she gave a speech after the evening’s special guest, former U.S. president Gerald Ford. 

“I didn’t like what he’d said, so I got up and contradicted him,” says Janssen. “He talked about how the students here were going to be successful—unlike students who were coming from broken homes. My mom had been a single mom for a period of time, so I talked about how lucky I was to have been raised by such a strong single mom.”

Bold and ambitious

Nowadays, Janssen is one of the bold and ambitious co-CEOs and co-founders of AltaML. It’s a company that collaborates with partners looking to use artificial intelligence or needing additional expertise and innovation to augment their internal efforts. Some of AltaML’s partners include: DynaLIFE Medical Labs and AIMCo, an investment company and Alberta crown corporation. 

She started AltaML with Cory Janssen in 2018, growing it from four employees to 120, with offices in downtown Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. 

She also sits on the board of Innovate Edmonton, a City Council-mandated organization which aims to support new businesses, encourage job growth and investment. Its goal is to attract 900 new companies, 20,000 new jobs and $5 billion in revenue to Edmonton by 2030.

AltaML’s new headquarters in downtown Edmonton.

Awards and accolades

For her efforts, Janssen received the Emerging Entrepreneur Award from Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in October 2021. She was also a finalist for the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards the following month. 

Janssen is one of the bright lights of AI in Edmonton, which in turn is considered one of the global leaders in the field. The University in Alberta, in particular, is ranked No. 3 in the world for AI research, thanks to its department of computing science and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii). 

She recently talked about her achievements, her company and her love of Edmonton in an interview with Transforming Edmonton. 

“I can do this, too”

Transforming Edmonton: Congratulations on your AWE award and RBC nomination. What does the recognition mean to you? 

Nicole Janssen: Thank you. I want up and coming female leaders, whether they’re girls or young adults or they’re partway through their career, to see this is possible. I want them to feel like, “Wow, I can do this, too,” because I didn’t think I’d be here either.

A candid moment with Nicole Janssen during an interview with Transforming Edmonton.

Confidence and support 

TE: What does it take to be successful in the tech industry? 

NJ: I don’t think the tech industry is necessarily different than any industry. I think confidence is a huge part of it. Sometimes you don’t necessarily have the confidence internally and that’s okay. It’s what you portray outwards—I’m not sure I can do this, but I’m going to tell them I can, and then I’m going to figure out how to make it work. I think that’s where the success comes from. 

I was a real estate broker. That has nothing to do with AI. Zero. I do not know how to make a machine learning model to save my life. I can do high school math. But that doesn’t hold me back. You have to surround yourself with really smart, wonderful leaders. Then you can make it happen.

TE: Alberta has more female tech founders than the global average. We have about 27 per cent versus 20 per cent globally. Why do you think that is?

NJ: I would say Alberta is a really great province to build a business because it’s not that hard to make a network. From pretty early on in my career, if I went to a business event, I knew somebody there. That network grows very quickly and it’s very supportive of entrepreneurs. It’s not like: “If you win, then I don’t win, so I’m not going to help you.” It’s more: “Let’s both win and make this better for everybody.” I’ve never felt competitiveness in the entrepreneurial space in Alberta. So that’s a big part of it, too.

First Alberta, then the world. One of the wall displays in AltaML’s headquarters.

AltaML’s origins 

TE: How did you get interested in AI and machine learning? 

NJ: Cory and I have a digital media business, Janalta Interactive, and we recognized that AI was going to disrupt that space because soon content would be able to be developed through an algorithm rather than being written. We went to hire one data scientist but, with the University of Alberta being one of the top schools globally for AI, we ended up hiring four. We put them to work on our problem. We said: “All of you get together and let us know how it’s solved.”

That doesn’t actually work. But we didn’t know that at the time. At the same time, we were chatting with other entrepreneurs and leaders. We kept hearing from them: “We need to get into machine learning.” We said: “How much would you pay us if we helped you?” 

So we used our team to help others and it just took off from there. We started with four employees in February 2018. We’re now at 120 and we’re in three cities, including Calgary and Toronto.

TE: What’s it like to start a tech business in Edmonton?

NJ: In another market, we wouldn’t be on anybody’s radar. In Edmonton, in Alberta, it didn’t take too long to get our name out there. Everybody is very supportive: “Let’s tell the world about you because that makes us better as a city and as a province.” That’s really beneficial. So is the University of Alberta, it’s attracting really good talent. 

TE: How has the local AI and tech industry helped you?

NJ: I don’t know if we would’ve started this business if the talent wasn’t here. It’s a huge advantage. That’s really key to our success.

AltaML’s new office pays tribute to binary code—the 1s and 0s of computer language.

Learn, learn, learn 

TE: What have been some of AltaML’s biggest successes? 

NJ: I always feel the successes really are the learnings. Everybody can say ‘We raised capital.’ We did and we’ve had the “flashy” successes, but I’ve always thought that the learnings are more important. Our team has had to be very agile—the vision for the company has never changed, but how we get there has changed multiple times as we learn different things. People’s roles have to change and the way we do things has to change. Even my job changes, because when you’re a 10-person company versus a 120-person company, your job as CEO is very, very different.

TE: What are some of your more important learnings? 

NJ: I would say we initially thought that we could start with one customer and that would just generate a bunch of ideas for us and then we would build software products from that. I don’t think we ever thought we would be partnering with anybody, but that has been really key to see things really accelerate. 

TE: You recently announced a partnership with Attabotics, a robotics company from Calgary. What’s all involved? 

NJ: It brings together ourselves, Attabotics and Amii. Attabotics create robots and they want to figure out how to make sure they can predict the maintenance issues, etc. If we can solve this with them, what else can we do with that? That’s sort of the premise—evolving together, taking some learning, and growing larger.

Nicole Janssen in AltaML’s new headquarters.

Adapt and innovate

TE: What are some of the challenges facing AltaML and Edmonton’s tech industry? 

NJ: The Great Resignation is real—and now it’s very easy to work remote. Whereas before, you would’ve had to move, all of a sudden you can work for Silicon Valley from your home in Edmonton and make Silicon Valley dollars. 

We’ve lost employees and we obviously don’t enjoy losing them. I think the key is you have to decide who, as a company, you want to be and what is the right culture to support your strategy. 

TE: You’re on the board of Innovate Edmonton. It recently announced partnerships with three global business accelerators. How important are those partnerships? 

NJ: Having those accelerators here—with access to capital, contacts, Silicon Valley and other areas—is key. Not only does it build our reputation outside of Alberta, but it also brings and attracts talent here. For each business they create, it will probably have a spinoff effect of many, many more businesses.

A view of downtown Edmonton from one of AltaML’s meeting rooms.

Edmonton: “An amazing place” 

TE: How would you describe Edmonton in three words? 

NJ: Gritty. Supportive. Unique. 

TE: What do you like about living in Edmonton? 

NJ: I love the pride of Edmontonians. How long have the Oilers struggled? It doesn’t matter, every year it’s like: “This is going to be the year.” 

Look at the weather we live in too—everybody’s just fine with it. I mean, it is just what it is. We all take a vacation from it at some point to somewhere warm during the year, hopefully. We have some horrific mosquitoes, but again, we just take it in stride. 

It’s an amazing place to grow a family, but it’s also a great place if you’re young and you want to have fun, be a part of the art scene and, you know, just experience life. 

My brother, for example, used to live in downtown Toronto. He had all kinds of stuff going on and had a big job in the city. Then, he and his wife decided to have kids, but that wasn’t going to work in the tiny little studio apartment he was in. 

So then, they had to move an hour-and-a-half outside of Toronto and they needed to shift their job, and their job expectations had to change a little bit. It was like: ‘Wow, this was a great place to live at one point and now it’s really hard with a family.” 

I feel like Edmonton can serve both, as well as an aging population. We have all the amenities for an aging population, including top-notch medical care. 

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows Nicole Janssen in AltaML’s new headquarters in downtown Edmonton on December 2, 2021.