The University of Toronto has been awarded a $200-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to revolutionize the speed and impact of scientific discovery through its Acceleration Consortium.
The funding – the largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university – will support the consortium’s work on “self-driving labs” that combine artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced computing to discover new materials and molecules in a fraction of the usual time and cost. Applications include everything from life-saving medications and biodegradable plastics to low-carbon cement and renewable energy.
Researchers in the consortium recently revealed that they used the technology to develop a potential cancer drug in just 30 days – a process that typically takes years, or even decades.
“The University of Toronto is grateful for this significant investment in artificial intelligence-driven research and innovation, which promises to improve the lives of Canadians and those of people around the world,” said U of T President Meric Gertler.
“The federal government’s critical support of this initiative builds on years of strategic planning and decisions in this space by the University and the federal government, including the 2017 launch of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy that helped cement Toronto’s status as a global hub for a revolutionary technology.
“This is the next step in achieving that bold vision.”
François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry, announced the U of T funding alongside 10 other large-scale projects across the country.
“The initiatives announced today will lead to breakthrough discoveries that will improve people’s lives, nourish our innovation ecosystems, and shape Canada’s prosperity for years to come,” he said in a statement. “Such is the value of Canadian institutions and researchers who think outside the box to tackle the greatest challenges of our time.”
Launched as an Institutional Strategic Initiative in 2021, the Acceleration Consortium brings together partners from academia, government and industry who are accelerating the discovery of materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future. The consortium aims to reduce the time and cost of bringing advanced materials to market, from an average of 20 years and $100 million to as little as one year and $1 million.
“Our goal is to accelerate science,” said Acceleration Consortium Director Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a professor in the departments of chemistry and computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science who is a CIFAR AI Chair at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “To do that, we realized we need to take a cue from self-driving cars and extended that concept to a self-driving lab, which uses AI and automation to carry out more experiments in a smarter way.
“We’ve essentially supercharged the process of scientific discovery.”
The CFREF funding, along with additional support from U of T – which includes an investment of $130 million to expand facilities to house the Acceleration Consortium’s state-of-the-art labs at the Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories building on the St. George campus – will help secure the researchers, spaces and partnerships needed to build a world-leading centre for accelerated materials discovery and innovation.
The funding will also help the consortium rapidly create high quality datasets to better train AI models and validate the model’s predictions in real time. That, in turn, will dramatically accelerate the discovery and development of molecules and materials for a wide range of industries.
With a strong plan of equity, diversity and inclusion guiding project implementation and research design, the initiative will commercialize ethically designed technologies and materials to benefit society and train today’s scientists with the skills they need to advance the emerging field of accelerated materials discovery. It will also allow the consortium to examine critical issues regarding the application of the technology, including from environmental and Indigenous perspectives.
“With this funding – which enabled us to obtain matching commitments of about $300 million from all our partners – we are talking about half a billion dollars of investments, said Aspuru-Guzik, who joined U of T from Harvard University in 2018 as a Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical and Quantum Chemistry and is one of a growing number of global experts at the Acceleration Consortium.
“This will help us make the Greater Toronto Area and Canada world leaders in AI-frontier discovery – we have no excuse not to be after this project.”
The Acceleration Consortium comprises nearly 100 researchers – and is hiring many more – across a wide variety of disciplines, including AI, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science, mechatronics, biology, pharmacology, robotics, technoscience and more. It also includes 30 partners from the private and public sector, including the University of British Columbia, a lead partner on the grant.
“What’s unique about this model is that it’s kind of this idea of a university without borders,” said Jason Hein, a member of the Acceleration Consortium's scientific leadership team and an associate professor in the chemistry department in the Faculty of Science at UBC.
“What happens a lot in Canadian research culture is that we’re good at punching above our weight class, but, in the past, other countries have had bigger budgets. What’s great about this is that through the energy of the people at Acceleration Consortium, we’re saying, ‘We’re doing something huge here.’ And to get the vote of confidence back saying, ‘Yes, we believe in you and let’s go forward’ is really important.”
CFREF aims to boost the strengths of Canadian postsecondary institutions so that they can achieve global success in research areas that create long-term social and economic advantages for Canada. It invests approximately $200 million per year (or approximately $1.4 billion over a competition cycle of seven years) through a highly competitive peer review process.
“We named this a consortium and not an institute for a reason,” Aspuru-Guzik said. “We are a global effort with its homebase in Toronto that involves academia, government and industry.
“A core goal of our efforts is to spin out the next generation of companies that will develop the materials for the 21st century here in Canada. This, in turn, will help make the GTA the economic epicentre for this field.”
Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, said the impact of the CFREF grant will be felt far beyond Acceleration Consortium itself.
“This level of investment can really transform how universities do innovation,” she said. “It allows us to not only drive forward discovery, but also improve adoption by Canadian companies and foster an ethical approach to technology development that’s guided by principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, benefiting all segments of society.”
With files from Erin Warner