Company founded by UW alumni wins ‘Best Tech Startup’


DarwinAI, an Explainable AI (XAI) company founded by University of Waterloo alumni, won “Best Tech Startup” at the 2021 Timmy Awards for the Toronto region. 

The “Best Tech Startup” award recognizes forward-thinking companies whose initiatives are redefining their industries. According to the award description, “these companies exemplify agility, innovation and resilience, as well as an ability to foster an outstanding work environment for their employees.” 

DarwinAI also won “Best Tech Work Culture” in the Small-Medium Sized Employers category, which includes companies with up to 250 employees. The award description states that “Best Tech Work Culture” is awarded to companies who have fostered an exceptional work culture — one that “actively promotes technical creativity, diversity, learning, and meaningful recognition.” 

The Timmy Awards are hosted by Tech in Motion, an event series created by Motion Recruitment that seeks to connect tech companies and workers throughout North America. Winners in each category and region are selected based on community votes from across the continent. 

DarwinAI’s six founders include two UW alumni and current engineering professors, Alexander Wong and Javad Shafiee, as well as four other alumni, Sheldon Fernandez, Arif Virani, Brendan Chwyl and Francis Li. Wong is also the current Canada Research Chair in AI and Medical Imaging. 

The team created DarwinAI to develop XAI solutions for a wide range of industry needs. Their technology solves what is commonly known as the “black box” problem in AI: because most AI advances through machine learning, it can be difficult for creators to understand or explain how the AI functions. Hence the name black box — a system that allows people to see its input and output, but obscures its inner processes. 

XAI allows users to understand how and why AI makes decisions. DarwinAI’s website explains that these insights “enable [them] to build superior enterprise solutions that have a smaller memory footprint, are more computationally efficient, and perform with extraordinarily high levels of precision.” 

Since the company was founded, it has remained connected to the university. In 2020, researchers from UW and DarwinAI collaborated to develop an open-source system that can detect COVID-19 via chest x-rays, called COVID-Net. 

According to DarwinAI, “by leveraging explainability in a human-machine collaborative design strategy, the research team was able to build a model with a high level of accuracy and transparency in under a week. In doing so, they demonstrated that our breakthrough XAI technology has tremendous capacity to benefit healthcare institutions and their patients by accelerating scalable development with much improved model design and performance.”

The Timmy Awards were created to honour the best tech employers in North America, highlighting the success of companies and managers whose efforts have resulted in positive contributions to their fields. 

In the “Best Tech Work Culture” category for the Toronto region, four out of five of the finalists — Top Hat, Properly, DarwinAI and Snapcommerce — have at least one UW alum as a founder.