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A deeper look at why Unilever chose Toronto

Having worked closely with the company over the past two years, Toronto Global has a Birdseye view of how Unilever’s AI Lab came together – competing with 15 other global jurisdictions for this major investment.

Today’s announcement of Unilever’s Horizon3 AI lab is an incredible vote of confidence in Toronto’s AI Ecosystem. Unilever’s Horizon3 Labs is the first and only of its kind globally and represents an investment that grew out of the company’s strategy to become a data-driven company.

Unilever has implemented more than 400 applications of AI across various disciplines including marketing, innovation, supply chain, and research & development. This includes employing generative AI in its customer service and marketing, and advanced analytics and machine learning in supply chain and logistics.

The company also developed a bespoke AI solution that auto-updates product titles and descriptions on retail websites to respond to search trends to put relevant products in front of consumers.

Andy Hill, Unilever’s Chief Data Officer, went so far as to say, “We are working to solve real-life problems through innovation, and setting up this lab in Toronto allows us to access vibrant tech talent and some of the best partners in the business to bring solutions to life.”

Why did Unilever, a Fortune 500 company with products in over 190 countries and 3.4 billion daily users, choose Toronto for it’s first and only global AI Lab?

 “In selecting Toronto, we will be able to tap into one of the fastest growing AI superclusters in the world with access to best-in-class research facilities and world-class talent while also building off the collaborative power of academia, businesses and government,” said President of Unilever Canada, Gary Wade.

The numbers back up Wade’s assessment. Toronto Region’s AI ecosystem is a thriving center of innovation, where top-tier research meets cutting-edge startups and tech giants, making it a prime destination for AI projects. Many multinational enterprises, such as HSBC, Sanofi, Samsung, and NVIDIA, have chosen the Toronto Region as their AI R&D centres, a testament to the region’s dynamic AI ecosystem.  

Over 285,000 tech workers reside in the Toronto Region. We have the third largest tech talent pool in North America after San Francisco Bay Area and New York Metro, and the second fastest growing tech talent workforce. In Ontario, over 1,000 students graduated from AI Masters’ programs, while more than 1,500 enrolled. Our world-renowned University of Toronto is one of the largest producers of high-quality AI and tech talent for the Toronto Region. Alumni from the university work for some of the world’s most well-known firms such as OpenAI, Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

There are over 660 AI firms across Canada, with 273 AI firms in the Toronto Region alone, underscoring the region as a hub for AI activity. In the fiscal year 2022-23, Canada’s venture capital investments in AI accounted for 28 percent of the global total, surpassing the investments of countries like Germany, the UK, and Italy.

Radical Ventures, Canada’s AI-focused Venture Capital (VC) fund based in the Toronto Region, is dedicated to investing in companies that harness AI and disruptive technologies for innovative solutions. With the AI activities occurring in our ecosystem, Ontario experienced a record high in AI VC investments, reaching $1.16 billion in 2022.

Toronto is also home to the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), global startup program for seed-stage, science-based companies. The Artificial Intelligence Stream, at CDL,  brings together experienced entrepreneurs, leading scientists, and active investors to help scale ventures focused on artificial intelligence. Alumni of the CDL program include Xanadu, Deep Genomics and Ada. In fact, the CDL model is so successful that it has scaled to 13 locations globally.

Another complement to our AI ecosystem is the Vector Institute, a research organization devoted to building Canada’s leadership in AI. Affiliated with the University of Toronto, Vector has over 700 members in their research community and works with dozens of corporate partners to drive research excellence and commercialization of AI. AI R&D funding in Ontario hit $1.08 billion in the last year, surpassing any other province’s investment in the sector.

The Vector Institute, led by Geoffrey Hinton, the ‘Godfather of AI’, plays a pivotal role in advancing AI research and commercialization. In fact, many University of Toronto alumni have had the privilege of being mentored by Hinton himself. Toronto Global helps companies partner with industry organizations such as the Vector Institute.

That’s a lot to consider. And, as part of our work with Unilever, Toronto Global prepared a comprehensive analysis of the Toronto Region’s AI ecosystem outlining how the region’s talent, ecosystem, innovation capacity, and global connectivity provide an immense advantage over other global locations. Toronto was chosen over 15 other jurisdictions globally for this investment.

Learn more about AI in the Toronto Region

Diversity is Toronto Region’s Global Advantage

Another component that sets the Toronto Region apart is the diversity of our people and economy. Half of our population is born outside of Canada, making Toronto one of the most diverse cities in the world. Businesses can access a workforce with unique perspectives, cultural awareness, and a worldly view that can help address barriers like data bias – which is critical to building technologies like AI.

By harnessing AI ethically and responsibly, businesses like Unilever are opening doors to new levels of productivity and innovation. In fact, ethical and explainable AI is of increasing interest to academia and industry in the Toronto Region.

Companies can also access talent globally through our open immigration programs. Toronto Region welcomes over 100,000 new immigrants a year, the largest proportion of any Canadian city. The Toronto Region’s workforce has a global perspective, with over 250 ethnicities and 190 languages represented, and more than half the population identifying as a visible minority. Business done in Toronto is better incorporated across the globe.

And the diversity of the Toronto Region’s economy? Accounting for 20 percent of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), our region stands at the forefront in Technology, Financial Services, Life Sciences, Manufacturing, and Food Processing. Unmatched in Canada, the Toronto Region’s economy is among the few in North America that can boast such a diverse spectrum of industries.

Unilever owns over 400 brands, including Dove, Hellmann’s, Vaseline, Degree, Axe, TRESemme, Knorr, Breyers and SheaMoisture. For companies like Unilever that manufacture a wide range of products, the Toronto Region’s economic diversity provides an opportunity to tap into vast industry expertise and work collaboratively to understand how industry peers and others are adopting AI.

What’s Next for Unilever?

Unilever’s investment builds on the company’s over 125-year history in Canada that. Establishing in Toronto in the 1890s as Lever Brother’s soap factory, Unilever’s current Canadian presence is still concentrated in the Toronto Region, including their Canadian headquarters, and a manufacturing facility in Rexdale that produces Hellman’s mayonnaise, and now Horizon3 Labs, in addition to a larger national presence.

Unilever is exploring data and analytic tools that unlock AI and machine learning across the value chain. Horizon3 Labs is set to concentrate on three key areas: advanced forecasting, graph database applications, and delivering insights through generative AI.

This strategic focus will integrate work conducted in Toronto into Unilever’s global business operations. Moreover, Horizon3 Labs’ projects will incorporate collaboration with academic researchers and industry experts, fostering a rich environment of innovation and expertise.

The Bottom Line

Unilever’s investment represents another strong signal that Canada, and particularly the Toronto Region, is the right place to invest. With Generative AI being the topic on everyone’s lips – from boardrooms to watercoolers – the time to invest in AI is now! In an increasingly competitive and changing economic landscape, the stability, diversity, and talent that the Toronto Region offers is universally sought after for companies incorporating AI into their business.  

Does your company have an AI strategy? Connect with the Toronto Global team to learn how we advise companies who are considering growth and AI innovation in the Toronto Region.

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Daniel Hengeveld, Vice President, Investment Attraction
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Sophia Chea, Senior Analyst, Business Insights
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Salman Khan, Senior Advisor, UK

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