Creating the first complete map of our world — in real-time
Startup founded at Waterloo is one of Canada’s fastest growing tech companies for innovating digital mapping
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Startup founded at Waterloo is one of Canada’s fastest growing tech companies for innovating digital mappingBy Sam Toman Faculty of Environment
In about a decade our relationship to maps went from pulling over to the side of the road with an over-folded monstrosity struggling to find “D-4,” to casually mentioning to your dashboard that you’d like to stop at Costco for a hot dog and being asked back if you want to take the scenic route. It’s enough to make you forget we’ve only scratched the surface of where maps will be a decade from now.
University of Waterloo alumnus Yuanming Shu is doing more than scratching that surface. His vision is to digitize and label everything — every detail on Earth — and then have that map update in real-time.
“When you think of a map, it actually contains different layers of objects. The buildings are one of the layers, and the roads, sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, forests and grasslands are all additional layers — these different kinds of objects form our physical world,” says Shu, who co-founded his company Ecopia.ai (Ecopia) with Waterloo Mathematics alumnus Shuo Tan.
Ecopia’s mapping technology uses data from satellites, mobile phones, drones and air imaging sensors to paint an information-rich picture of our world that can be used by governments and industry to better plan and power applications such as smart cities, real estate, insurance, autonomous driving, and augmented and virtual reality.
“We want to capture as much detail of the physical world as possible so companies, governments and citizens can better understand and interact with their environment,” Shu says. “If Google Maps is the first generation of digital mapping, we are creating the second generation.”
Until now, identifying useful characteristics on digital maps was a pain-staking, time consuming and costly process. “That is essentially the problem we are trying to solve because, historically, determining what was what on a map required humans to manually annotate the images,” Shu explains. “We have developed advanced AI technology to significantly reduce the time and cost of this process.”
Shu started dreaming big while a student in the Faculty of Environment. His PhD supervisor, Jonathan Li, encouraged him to start a business early-on. Shu’s break came when he received patent advise and support from WatCo, Waterloo’s Commercialization Office for startups, and a SEB commercialization fellowship from the University of Waterloo and FedDev Ontario.
“Basically, everything you develop at the University of Waterloo belongs to the inventor, so I think that's a very good IP policy, it’s the only university that I've heard of in North America that has that type of policy,” he says.
The funding allowed Shu and Tan to grow, hiring key engineering and business members to prototype the product and explore the business applications in the early stage.
“From there we organically grew our business and did not have to go outside for additional funding. We’re completely bootstrapped,” Shu says. “So far the growth rate surprised even us.”
Considering that Ecopia’s mapping technology empowers businesses and governments around the world to save time and money, their growth shouldn’t be that surprising. In fact, Ecopia was ranked the fifth fastest growing tech company in Canada in the 2019 Deloitte Technology Fast 50 ranking.
Ecopia’s technology is perfectly suited to help organizations build for a future where data and information empowers us to make better decisions.
“Take property insurance for example,” Shu says. “As climate change worsens, the risk to infrastructure, homes and buildings changes annually. Instead of leveraging 10-year-old maps to assess risk, they can see how the floodplain and infrastructure have changed, and project future risk based on infrastructure load, rising temperatures and water. It’s the complete picture. Also, when the flood happens, insurers and governments can respond faster and more effectively.”
Moving beyond risk assessment application, Shu’s company also provides maps that help inform our social landscape to best provide services such as vaccines and clean energy to developing countries that have been left off of out-of-date traditional maps.
Recently Ecopia partnered with satellite imaging company Maxar to generate the first and only complete map of Tanzania. In all, 18,588,871 buildings were mapped across 945,087 kilometres squared with close to 90 per cent accuracy. Maxar provided the high-resolution satellite imagery and Ecopia’s advanced AI technology did the rest.
This mapping has helped empower Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world largest humanitarian organization to give Tanzania’s government critical life-saving data they need for vaccine distribution, population mapping and disaster response.
“The success of that project really opened my eyes to what we can achieve as a company. Something that has never been done before,” he says. “We can create the first map that represents every detail of the planet and can be updated in real-time. Even a few years ago we never thought this was possible, but today we’re poised to make world history. It’s really exciting.”