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Acerta co-founder Greta Cutulenco (left) and Mental Canvas founder Julie Dorsey won the first Female Founders Competition. (Rebecca Wilkowski Photos)

Microsoft’s investment arm M12 on Tuesday announced the winners of its inaugural Female Founders Competition that awarded $4 million to two women-led startups.

Acerta, an AI startup based in Waterloo, Ontario, and Mental Canvas, a digital drawing company based in New York City, beat out hundreds of other submissions and will join the M12 portfolio. Each will receive a $2 million investment and access to other resources.

Microsoft partnered with EQT Ventures and SVB Financial Group to launch the competition earlier this year as a way to narrow a huge gap in investment in startups founded by women. Less than 3 percent of venture capital dollars went to all-women founding teams last year while 17 percent of founders had a female founder in 2017.

“This competition, while a small step to shift how we sourced deals, not only showed us that there is more than one way to effectively discover talent and expand networks, but it’s our responsibility as venture capitalists to begin leveling the playing field so those companies receiving funding are a truer reflection of the world in which we live,” Peggy Johnson, Microsoft EVP of Business Development, said in a blog post.

M12’s push to recognize female founders comes as Microsoft is dealing with an ongoing gender discrimination lawsuits brought by current and former female technical employees. Overall, Microsoft’s headcount is 28 percent women as of June 30, up a percentage point from a year ago. Also on the rise is the share of women in technical roles — from 18.5 percent a year ago to 19.9 percent — and in leadership positions, from 18.8 percent a year ago to 19.7 percent.

M12, previously known as Microsoft Ventures, launched in 2016. The VC arm generally invests in early-stage B2B startups that are working on their Series A or Series B rounds, with investments ranging from $2 million to $10 million. There are more than 60 startups in its portfolio.

Here are descriptions of the winning founders and their respective companies, via Microsoft:

Acerta: Based in Waterloo, Ontario, Acerta provides an AI platform that ensures quality and reliability of vehicle systems throughout the vehicle lifecycle.

Greta Cutulenco, CEO and co-founder of Acerta, began her journey as a software engineering student at the University of Waterloo, where she developed an interest in robotics and autonomous vehicle systems. While working on a research project with Sebastian Fischmeister, a professor at the university, she became fascinated with recent developments in connected and autonomous vehicles, sparking a career that led her to work with and learn from automotive OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers before returning to her roots in research. Greta, Sebastian and another colleague, Jean-Christophe Petkovich, would go on to found Acerta, using machine learning to provide real-time malfunction detection and failure prediction in vehicles. To commercialize their work, Greta spent time in local incubators and attending business and sales courses before securing Acerta’s participation in the Techstars Mobility accelerator in Detroit. Just a couple years later, Acerta has grown from a team of three to nearly 20, with Greta recently being named to Forbes 30 under 30 for Manufacturing and Industry and Acerta gaining traction with some of the largest auto manufacturers as customers.

Mental Canvas: Based in New York City, reimagines sketch for the digital age by augmenting it with spatial strokes, 3D navigation, and free-form animations – all drawn with the ease of pencil and paper.

Julie Dorsey, founder and chief scientist of Mental Canvas, trained as an architect before becoming a world-class computer scientist specializing in computer graphics. Her appreciation for, and expertise in these two disciplines inspired her to create the core technology behind Mental Canvas, which reimagines sketch for the digital age by augmenting it with spatial strokes, 3D navigation, and free-form animations. As supported by its early customers, Mental Canvas is a platform that addresses a wide and varied market, with early customers spanning a variety of industries from architecture, concept development for movies, animation and games, product design, education, and scientific illustration. Dorsey is also a professor of computer science at Yale University, and previously was on the faculty at MIT, where she held tenured appointments in the departments of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Architecture. She is an inventor on more than a dozen awarded and four pending patents, and for the past two years, has devoted herself full-time to her vision of enhancing visual communication by fundamentally elevating the way people draw.

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