Five Questions with Ecopia Co-Founder and President Jon Lipinski

May 14, 2024

Ecopia AI is a Toronto, Ont.-based artificial intelligence company on a mission to digitize the world using AI.

Co-Founder and President Jon Lipinski recently sat down with CCI President Benjamin Bergen to talk about Ecopia, the uses of AI for applications such as flood mapping and infrastructure decision-making, and the government procurement process.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Benjamin Bergen: Jon, thanks for joining me. To begin, could you give us some background on how Ecopia got started?

Jon Lipinski: Of course! Ecopia started with my co-founder's PhD research at the University of Waterloo; they were studying how they could teach a computer to interpret imagery like a human would.

Simply put, this is the process of training artificial intelligence to look at imagery captured by a satellite, plane, or a street view vehicle, and see it from a human perspective. The output of that process would be an AI-generated map that allows the user to better understand our planet – by providing detailed information on features such as roads, buildings, and other potential areas of concern, essentially a digital representation of reality that can then be used for decision-making purposes.

BB: That’s really exciting!

Now, in terms of environmental management, and it becoming a growing concern amongst national and regional governments, how can AI be used to help government regulators protect the environment?

JL: Absolutely. A lot of our customers work with us to better understand the state of the built and natural environment. They want to know where all the buildings are, the elevation of those buildings, the location of water bodies, what’s the risk of flooding, where more green space could be installed to absorb more water during storm events – that type of information.

Then that insight is used to inform decisions about things like where money could be invested to improve sustainability, community equity, and climate resilience - things like enhancing water defences, or incentivizing behaviour that would ultimately reduce the risk of climate-related events such as flooding or fire.

The interesting piece that I’ve come to realize as we’ve done more of this work is that there is a big gap in understanding when it comes to what the current environment looks like.

If you look at flooding, for instance, there is a lack of consistent data when it comes to the mapping of impervious surfaces and water defences across Canada. We know that impervious surfaces affect pluvial or urban flood modeling significantly; for example, water falling on pavement will result in runoff, but water falling on natural features will be absorbed. Similarly, understanding where water defences such as dams or dikes are located is an integral part of mitigating fluvial flooding, and can have a material impact on flood risk of surrounding communities.

It is important to understand these aspects of land use when doing flood modeling, but many government organisations lack the required data. We’ve seen that it’s a surprising gap at all levels of government, not just in municipalities, but also at the provincial and federal levels as well. AI-based mapping makes it possible to identify land use types and infrastructure features efficiently at large scales, enabling the government to have the full picture when making important infrastructure and policy decisions.

BB: For us at CCI 2024 is the year of procurement. We've heard from innovators that the government buying your product can be a big deal. Can you speak about that journey with the federal government or provincial governments and what that’s meant to Ecopia or other steps you’ve taken within government?

JL: We have participated in multiple procurement-focused innovation programs within Canada. They’ve been amazing opportunities to engage with the government end users and gain direct feedback on our products, allowing us to continue to innovate and create the highest-value solutions for our customers.

While these programs act as a funding source that helps facilitate partnership between federal departments and innovative Canadian companies, they also benefit scaling companies in that the funds are recognized as a procurement which helps your top line. This can be further leveraged from the perspective of debt or equity financing. These programs have been great drivers of acceleration for our engagement with the government, but I know now that the challenge is addressing what happens after companies graduate from those programs. The next step will be to figure out procurement pathways to enable these graduates to further scale with their government partner clients and grow into large Canadian bedrock companies. I believe that if we can find ways to achieve this, it will greatly benefit both the Canadian innovation ecosystem, and our government as users of these innovative technologies.

BB: Interesting! Can you talk a little bit about how the government can use AI, and what it means?

JL: Sure. AI is all about efficiency and scale. In mapping, that means collecting important geographic information that is needed for decision-making, but resource-intensive to create and maintain. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Mapping data is often needed for government equity programs, for example ensuring equal access to broadband internet across the country. To effectively locate unserved populations and increase broadband equity, the government first needs a complete map of buildings across the country – this is an actual data product that we produced and delivered to the Canadian federal government. When you’re talking about distributing billions of dollars to build out infrastructure across the country, it makes sense to first invest a small portion of that into good data to make sure you’re putting money into the right place.

The same logic applies to transportation infrastructure and climate resilience projects. From the federal government's perspective, they’re allocating funding to help improve the conditions of roads or better protect Canadians from flood risk, but one of the challenges we’ve surfaced is that there isn’t an independent database of road conditions or land cover across Canada. Without that source of truth, it is difficult to adequately assess these critical issues.

For example, we recently created a very detailed 3D map of Montreal and found that the road conditions are worse within certain low-income areas. I think anecdotally, most people know that kind of disparity exists, but if the independent data can validate these issues, then that’s going to allow for more equitable funding and policy decisions.

BB: That is very interesting. How do we use AI as a tool to create not only better conditions for everyone but also help repair some of the inequalities that have existed? And how do you use data to help identify that, that’s very interesting.

Can you talk to me a little bit about what it means for Ecopia when government is buying from you?

JL: Our mapping products are often used by many industries to drive more informed decision-making. But historically, it’s been governments around the world that have been a great anchor customer for us; providing validation and a springboard to enter new markets.

For example, in the United States the federal government was one of our first large-scale clients - that allowed us to build out our products across the country and also offered a great reference customer. We were then able to quickly further commercialize those products across insurance, civil engineering, telecommunications, and other industries.

I think that kind of opportunity exists in Canada, too. I think there is a great opportunity for the government to invest in Canadian technology in a way that can have multiplied benefits for our economy – building intellectual property, jobs, and revenue – and providing an accelerated path to global expansion for innovative Canadian companies.

But on top of that, deploying innovative technologies within government can have a real positive impact on Canadian communities. For example, AI-powered maps could help government understand where local bylaws may be hindering the development of more housing to support our growing population – by identifying the presence of factors such as large road setbacks, low building heights, and small building footprint size across municipalities. These same maps could also provide an enhanced view of climate resilience or road conditions by offering a better understanding of the built and natural environment. Understanding these underlying factors from a policy perspective could help enable a better idea of how resources can be distributed to tackle some of Canada’s most pressing challenges.

About the Council

The Council of Canadian Innovators is a national business council of more than 150 scale-up technology companies headquartered in Canada. Our members are job-creators, philanthropists and leading commercialization experts in the 21st century digital economy.


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