uOttawa professor steers AI startup toward 'huge' opportunity in self-driving car industry

Robert Laganière
Robert Laganière is the founder and CEO of Ottawa-based Sensor Cortek, which develops high-tech sensors that are being tested in autonomous vehicles. Photo courtesy Robert Laganière

With that crispness in the air a sure sign summer is coming to an end, Robert Laganière is already looking forward to the sub-zero chill of January.

While snowbanks, blizzards and icy roads are a veritable nightmare for most Ottawa residents, for the University of Ottawa computer scientist and entrepreneur they represent the ideal proving ground for his company’s cutting-edge tech. 

Laganière is the founder and CEO of Sensor Cortek, a startup launched early last year out of an incubator run by uOttawa’s Faculty of Engineering. He leads a team of researchers developing technology for self-driving vehicles that uses artificial intelligence to help detect pedestrians, cars and other surrounding objects.

The seven-person company’s state-of-the-art sensors combine tools such as radar and Lidar with deep neural computer networks that mimic the functions of the human brain.

The result, Laganière says, is technology that can prevent accidents by quickly spotting potential hazards even in the darkest and harshest conditions ​– such as a snowstorm in the middle of the night.

That’s where Sensor Cortek’s home base gives the fledgling firm an edge over its competitors in warmer climates, he adds.

“That’s the difference between a California company and a Canadian company,” Laganière says. “We care about winter, and that’s why we design our solutions for winter. We hope to demonstrate that using multiple sensors in challenging weather conditions is the way to go.” 

"We care about winter, and that’s why we design our solutions for winter."

Although most automotive industry analysts predict it will be decades before autonomous vehicles become a fixture on Canadian roads, AI-powered software and technology is already ubiquitous in today’s cars – many of which already possess limited driverless capabilities such as self-parking features.

The nation’s capital, with its abundance of highly skilled tech talent, is working hard to become a leader in the rapidly emerging AV software space.

 

The provincially funded Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network has chosen Ottawa as one of its six regional technology hubs, with the 16-kilometre L5 test track in the city’s south end as its centrepiece. AVIN is providing financial backing for a number of high-potential new entrants in the sector, including Sensor Cortek. 

The Ottawa startup has another high-profile partner in Paris-based Valeo, a leading global supplier of sensors and other smart-car technology that’s working with Sensor Cortek to develop the next generation of AI-driven applications. 

Working with BlackBerry QNX

In addition, Sensor Cortek is one of five Canadian companies taking part in an automotive tech accelerator program led by Ottawa’s L-Spark and Canadian tech giant BlackBerry, which develops its platform for connected and autonomous vehicles out of its QNX facility in Kanata. 

Sensor Cortek, which is graduating from the program at the end of this month, will show off its technology next Tuesday during the accelerator’s virtual demo day.

Laganière says the chance to work with AV software trailblazers such as QNX has shifted the young company’s growth trajectory into a higher gear.

“It’s really being able to demonstrate that our solution not only works at the prototype level but it can be deployed on actual vehicles,” he says, adding the company is hoping to start putting its sensors through the paces at the L5 track in the next few months to see how they withstand a Canadian winter.

In the meantime, Laganière is resuming talks with potential investors in Canada and the U.S. that broke off at the outset of the pandemic. With autonomous vehicles now venturing into the mainstream, he’s confident plenty of potential partners will want to kick the tires, so to speak.

“There's a lot of excitement for artificial intelligence solutions,” he says. “The opportunities are huge.”