Element AI co-founder’s new startup secures $1.25 million in pre-seed funding

Philippe Beaudoin, CEO of Waverly and co-founder of Element AI. Philippe Beaudoin

MONTREAL — Waverly, the Montreal-based company whose “empathetic AI” app aims to curate more thoughtful and nuanced content than its social media peers, has secured $1.25 million in pre-seed funding from Panache Ventures, Maple Leaf Angels, AI-focused VC fund Hike Ventures, Montreal-based startup accelerator FounderFuel and private investors.

The venture was founded in May by Element AI co-founder and former Google senior software engineer Philippe Beaudoin. Rather than relying on advertising-driven algorithms to select user content, the Waverly app will generate and funnel content based on a user’s “manifesto”—essentially, a guidebook of likes and dislikes. The goal, as Beaudoin has said, is “to fight the toxicity that creeps into the information delivery systems connecting us.”

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Talking Point

Launched in May by Element AI co-founder Philippe Beaudoin, Waverly’s app will generate content based on a user’s “manifesto” of likes and dislikes, rather than the advertising-driven algorithms used by Google, Facebook and the like. “A lot of the problems like polarization and filter bubbles all connect to the algorithms that the Googles and Facebooks of the world use. That’s what we’re attacking,” Beaudoin said.

Empathetic AI is artificial intelligence that is geared to detect, identify and react to human emotions. Amazon has said the technology could allow its digital assistant Alexa to answer queries based on a user’s emotional state. 

The site plans to monetize its lofty goal by selling content providers access to Waverly users. The company recently recruited Philippe Gagnon, an architect programmer at Ubisoft, as its head of technology. Michael Turri, a founding partner of Montreal-based design studio fortyforty labs, is head of product. Now counting nine employees, Waverly says its first proof-of-concept product, a compendium of curated content called Waverly Reader, sometime next year. 

“After we saw the pitch, we saw it as a no-brainer,” said Maple Leaf Angels managing director Prathna Ramesh. “The control is no longer in the hands of the end user, the data is no longer ours, and a lot of people aren’t happy with the content they get. Waverly could be a real disruptor.”

Beaudoin, who remains Element AI’s scientific advisor, drew the idea for Waverly from the Center for Humane Technology, a U.S. organization founded by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris that believes social media platforms foment “outrage, confusion, addiction, and depression” amongst their users. Harris was one of the protagonists of The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s scathing documentary about the addictive, privacy-invading excesses of Facebook, Google and other social media companies. The Waverly app emerged from the conversations he had with Harris, a former Google colleague of his.

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“We basically talked about how nice it would be if Google made products that took our well-being into account,” Beaudoin said. “A lot of the problems like polarization and filter bubbles all connect to the algorithms that the Googles and Facebooks of the world use. That’s what we’re attacking.”