From space mice to artificial intelligence: Winnipeg scientist, entrepreneur is breaking new ground

Winnipeg entrepreneur and scientist Anastasia Baran has advanced degrees in electrical engineering and astrophysics, and is the chief operating officer of a technology company.

But she launched her career by helping to send rodents to space.

It was part of a summer internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on designing a space satellite to house mice.

"They were sending a bunch of mice into space and needed someone to make sure the mice were safe in terms of radiation levels," said Baran. "So I went out to MIT and helped them design their satellite."

Since then, Baran has completed a doctorate at the University of Manitoba, focusing on breast cancer research that uses safe and inexpensive microwave imaging. She's currently the COO of nQube Data Science, a company that specializes in designing software that solves difficult optimization problems.

Oh, and she's done all this although she's only 32 years old.

"I was a huge nerd growing up," Baran says. "I loved Star Trek and X-Files. It was a passion of my youth."

Software focuses on casino behaviour

Baran, now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba, has a PhD in electrical engineering, a masters in astrophysics and holds a data science certificate from Johns Hopkins University.

Baran and nQube chief executive officer and University of Manitoba professor Jason Fiege — who she describes as her partner in life and science — are presently using software they developed called Qubist to focus on casino gaming.

The artificial intelligence-based software harnesses optimization techniques to track casino customers' behaviour in order to maximize gaming revenue and the player experience. 

The software does that by using an advanced mathematical model of the behaviour of people on the casino floor. It analyzes people's experience and, in turn, can help casino management decide where to place slot machines. The hope is that people will spend more time, and money, at casinos. 

"Happy people spend a lot of money," Baran explains. For example, some people want to be next to a table where all the action is, while others are "wallflowers" who want to be left alone and away from the activity of the casino. Her software helps casinos figure out who falls into which category.

It's all in the data, Baran says. "One thing that's really great about the casino industry — well, something people might think it's great — is that they record absolutely everything that a player does."

What does Baran think about the ethics behind creating something that is designed to, arguably, make people gamble more?

"It's definitely something we've thought about. It's something you have to think about when you create a product like this," Baran explains.

"We do go to conferences about responsible gaming, and it's very enlightening."

Once nQube generates more money, Baran and Fiege hope to create a project focused on problem-gambling behaviours on casino floors. Baran says that's a goal they'll be able to realize, based on what they're seeing in their data.

"We're hoping to create a casino floor that is less appealing to problem gamblers," she says. "We want to identify what problem gamblers like to do when they get on the floor and how to rearrange the floor so it's not a fun place for them to be anymore."

Big win at gaming summit

Baran and Fiege won the Start-Up Launchpad competition at GiGse — the Global iGaming Summit and Expo — in San Diego this year for the Qubist software.

It's one of the most prestigious gaming summits in North America, and the competition is described as the Shark Tank of the gaming world. NQube was the only Canadian company among the five finalists for the pitch competition.

"Our software generated a lot of buzz and we had some really good discussions about potential funding," Baran says.

While the artificial intelligence is currently being used in the casino gaming industry, Baran says it's applicable in other fields as well. She says their software can optimize problems in finance, engineering, astrophysics and medicine. 

"There's a huge amount of problems that this artificial intelligence-based optimizer can do," Baran says.

"Another issue is, where do we put emergency services in a city in order to optimize the coverage within a city?" she said. "There are problems like that. It's really all connected and there are a lot of exciting directions to take this in."

Next challenge is breast cancer imaging

Her next quest is for nQube to fund her other interest: microwave breast cancer imaging.

"We take low-energy microwaves in order to do breast cancer imaging," she explained. "The benefit is that it's very inexpensive compared to other modalities out there, and it's safe. It's basically the same amount of energy that's in your cellphone."

In her current research, Baran uses a complicated algorithm that takes the data she collects and can then reconstruct an image of the interior of the breast. From that, Baran can determine if there are any tumours in the breast or if the tissue is healthy.

'We love the city … and we want to stay here'

With all her research, Baran also has larger goals — like getting more people involved in the field within the province, and working with people coming out of the University of Manitoba.

"I'm from Winnipeg. We love the city, we're a Manitoba company and we want to stay here," she says.

"A lot of people coming out of engineering look for jobs elsewhere, but we want to be an employer of scientists in Winnipeg," she explains. "That's a big motivator for us to grow the company."

As well, while she recognizes she is one of few women in the engineering department at the University of Manitoba, she hopes that will change.

"When you walk through the department here you obviously don't see a lot of ladies," she said. "There are challenges but I think the important part is that we need to get more women involved."

For her part, Baran has an impressive list of accomplishments for someone who's only 32. So what does she think of that?

"I was kind of hoping I'd be a little younger, to tell you the truth."