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EPISODE 074 : 08/11/2022

Maxime Cohen

Maxime Cohen is the Scale AI Chair Professor of Retail and Operations Management and co-director of the Retail Innovation Lab at McGill University. He is also the Chief AI Officer of ELNA Medical and a Scientific Advisor in AI and Data Science at IVADO Labs. Maxime’s core expertise lies at the intersection of data science and operations management, which he has applied to the world of retail, ride-sharing, airlines, sustainability and several other fields.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Maxime Cohen

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

Watch Spark Loyalty’s Small Business Success Channel

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology brought to you by Snowshoe, your smarter loyalty leader Spark Plug is happy to welcome Max Cohen. He’s the scale air chair, professor of retail and operations management at McGill University and also is the co-director of the Retail Innovation Lab. There he is, the chief A.I. officer, Yale, and a medical and he is a scientific advisor in A.I. and data science. So Max’s core expertize is at the intersection of data science and operations management. So he knows a lot about retail, ridesharing, airline sustainability, and he’s worked with a lot of interesting companies like Google and Waze and Spotify and also Snowshoe. So we’re excited to welcome him today. Welcome, Max.

Maxime Cohen [00:00:51] Thank you for having me. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:52] So great to have you here, Max. Well, you start by sharing more about your education and career path. Leading up until now. I know that Ned mentioned some things, but we’d love to hear more about your background differently. 

Maxime Cohen [00:01:03] So actually my background is all over the place. I was born and grew up in France, then moved to Israel. I did my formal education in Israel, then moved to the US, lived nine years the US and three years ago moved to here in Montreal, Canada, so lived in four countries. I started as an aerospace engineer for my bachelor’s degree, then moved to electrical engineering for a master’s, and then I did a Ph.D. in applications research at M.I.T. And since then, I’ve been focusing on operations research, which is a discipline of applying mathematical modeling, as well as optimization and machine learning to solve real business problems. 

Ashley Coates [00:01:40] Wonderful. And I’m curious what initially drew you to pursue information technology in your education and then what led you to specializing in operations management and retail? 

Maxime Cohen [00:01:52] Yeah, now that’s a great question. Actually, I have thought a lot about this question in recent years, and what drove me to that discipline is the fact that I was always fascinated by mathematics and numbers and technical skills, but I was also very attracted to the business world and the management type of decisions. And what I really like in operations management is bridging the gap between these two skills. It uses mathematics to solve real world business problems and to have impact that can, you know, benefit society, benefit people. So I really like the melding of those two worlds, and that’s what made me make the decision to go to that discipline. 

Ned Hayes [00:02:28] Fascinating. So you’ve been a professor at McGill since 2010 and you taught previously. So if you always wanted to teach these disciplines as well. 

Maxime Cohen [00:02:38] So that’s a good question. So when you in a university professor teaching is a small part of your duties on some level. So I do teach and I love it and I really enjoy that part of my job. But most of my time is spent doing research, doing some consulting, working with companies, supervising graduate students. So I cannot say, unfortunately, that I always wanted to teach, but I like kids. And when I started doing, my kids was exploring several options for my career and I was really attracted by the freedom that the academic world provides, as well as by the ability or the opportunity to transfer the knowledge to the next generation of students and young managers. And I was very excited about this opportunity to both do research with a freedom of the topic and the type of problems I can work on, as well as the option to potentially provide the knowledge I was provided by my teachers to the next generation. 

Ned Hayes [00:03:30] Right. And you also do this knowledge transfer through the Retail Innovation Lab. So you focus on testing innovations. I think I read frictionless technologies to make the customer experience better. Can you tell us more about the Retail Innovation Lab? 

Maxime Cohen [00:03:45] Yes, definitely. So that’s an initiative I’m very excited about. So I’m one of the two co-directors for the Retail Innovation Lab at McGill University. So we opened a convenience store in partnership with a large global retailer called Circle K or Alimentation Couche-Tard, like it’s called in Quebec, and the store is on campus. It’s open to the public, both students and students. And it’s a lifestyle. It’s a real environment, but also allows researchers like myself and several of my colleagues to test new technology, to study consumer behavior, to collect the data for research and teaching purposes. And so, as you say, we are testing and trying out several technology commencements, one of them being this frictionless technologies that we’ve been tested the last two years. And we have a lot of additional undergoing project that I’m very excited about. 

Ashley Coates [00:04:33] Wonderful. Are you able to share the projects that are currently being researched? 

Maxime Cohen [00:04:37] Yes, definitely. We have a lot of initiatives. Some of my colleagues are working on robotics, how to include robotics enhancements in physical convenience stores to help the consumer experience. Another one, and particularly excited together with one of my colleagues, as well as a postdoctoral research associate, we are trying to work on the digital twinning of the store. So now there is a huge. The buzz around the metaverse and the physical slash online type of experiences. So we are trying to reproduce the exact same environment of physical stores in a digital world. So we call it a digital twinning of the store. And then we can also, in the future of vision, is to potentially allow consumers to wear kind of mutual goggles, to use augmented reality and virtual reality to announce potentially the customer experience. So that’s one of the things that I am really excited about because it’s very futuristic. It’s also very trendy with all the metaverse discussions. Another one and particularly excited with one of our doctoral students. We are working on trying to understand how can we incentivize consumers, in particular students to make healthier food decisions when they go shopping? So because the store has mainly food options, we want to understand how can we make sure that people are more attracted to the food choices that are a little bit healthier and better for their health? So can we change the place, locations of those items in the store? Can we change the pricing? Can we give some incentives? Can we get some type of targeted alerts on the app when people are shopping around the store and we are testing out a different mechanism with the hope of inducing more healthy food choices? 

Ned Hayes [00:06:12] Well, it sounds like part of what you’re doing is being able to analyze behavior and improve that behavior. Is that accurate? 

Maxime Cohen [00:06:19] Yes, that’s totally accurate. So we’re collecting a lot of data on consumers shopping experience. Of course, all the data is anonymized, preserves fully the privacy of users. But we still can collect enough data to understand the consumer experience and consumer behavior inside the store. And then we analyze this data and propose new, innovative ways to improve the consumer experience, make it more efficient, more enjoyable to also improve the retailer’s profitability and sales. But last and not least, we also want to have a strong social impact by making sure that the data science algorithms that we are deploying are responsible, that are helping the society, in particular, for example, healthy food choices. What’s kind of a good example. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:05] That’s really wonderful. That’s such a great real world example. So also another position you hold is Chief AI Officer at LNA Medical Alma Medical. 

Maxime Cohen [00:07:15] L l the medical examiner. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:17] Medical. And I understand it’s the largest network of primary and specialty care clinics in Canada. So can you tell us how Alma uses AI in its operations? 

Maxime Cohen [00:07:27] Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And I’ve been switching from the retail sector to the health care sector, but at the end of the day, I observe that those two sectors are very similar. When you go shopping to a store, it can be online or offline. You’re making a decision of what to buy, what to roles and so on. Now, when you go to clinics, similarly, you can shop online and offline. There is a big push of telemedicine in recent years, and you can also go physically to see a clinician. Then you also have to decide when to go, how often to go, which type of tests to do. So definitely there is a lot of similarity and I’m very excited in the next few years to apply my knowledge of A.I. more to the medical and healthcare sector. So lot is, as you say, the largest network of clinics in Canada, almost 100 clinic in five provinces. And the goal now that there is a such a large network, there was a lot of data collected. Again, a very important challenge is to collect this data in a very secured fashion that preserves full anonymization, as well as privacy of users, because medical data is very sensitive, obviously. But then we also want to use this data to improve the patient experience. So observe that they will place the world consumer by patients, but at the same time, it’s exactly the same problem. So working to make sure that patients have a very pertinent type of experience, very personalized. Also, we don’t want them to lose time. So when you go to the doctor, sometimes it takes forever. You have to fill in questionnaires. You have to repeat the same amount of information. If you can use infrastructure and digitalization of all of those questions and do a lot of work before you go to visit your physician, you can save a lot of time. Now saving time for physicians, meaning that physician can see more patients and therefore is increasing access to health care to like a larger masses. And that’s something that we are very passionate about, trying to really improve the health care system, to allow physicians to see more patients more efficiently with a more personalized experience. We’re also doing a lot of work on leveraging A.I. for preventive medicine. So unfortunately, in many countries, prevention in medicine, something very rare, only for a very small portion of the population. And we want to somewhat democratize the access to personalized medicine, as well as preventive medicine with a very large leverage of A.I. technologies. 

Ned Hayes [00:09:42] Got it. So you talked about medicine. You talked about A.I. But one thing we haven’t really discussed is the pandemic. The pandemic definitely affected how patients interacted. So do you think the pandemic led to overall, better or worse, health care experience? 

Maxime Cohen [00:09:58] That’s a hard question to answer. I. If they believe that the pandemic affected the way people are both shopping in retail stores, as well as going to health care type of experiences. As we saw in retail, there was a huge acceleration of online shopping and e-commerce adoption similarly in the pandemic in the health care sector. We can feel that we also have a lot more people who are willing now to try telemedicine, to try to do some type of chat conversation with physicians and nurses and from the health care practitioner side. Also, there is a big push of making things much more efficient and faster because when people go to see the physician, they don’t want to stay forever and in waiting rooms. So definitely there was a big push of trying to make things more efficient where minimal contact with other people when you go with patient encounters with physicians. So that’s something that I see. My appearance is very beneficial for that type of system because telemedicine opens a lot of doors for patients to see a physician in a very seamless fashion and also to make the physical visits much more efficient, much faster, which again increases the opportunity to see more patients and therefore to increase access. 

Ashley Coates [00:11:11] Very cool. And if you’re not busy enough, Max, you are also the scientific advisor in AI and data science at Envato Labs. I understand the team at Avatar believes so strongly in AI, and I’m just curious, why do you believe so strongly in this technology and why should we all be paying attention to this technology? 

Maxime Cohen [00:11:30] You know, I’m very fortunate and privilege to serve as a scientific advisor on data science and A.I. for UVA. The lab’s event Labs is a nonprofit company that received a large budget from the Canadian governments to help large Korean corporations, but also smaller companies to adopt A.I. technology and assist them through their digitalization. Now, if you think about it, of course, to ask is very interesting. The reason we are believing in the impact of A.I. for this company is we saw it firsthand. We’ve been working with dozens of different companies, from small startups to large corporations. And we could see how if you do it properly, you could start by collecting the right type of data, storing the right type of data, and then developing some predictive and also prescriptive ways of ingesting this data to make better decision and better prediction that can definitely improve the bottom line of the company. So we saw it in many different sectors, in many different companies, and therefore we are big believers that I can definitely help companies streamline their operations, optimize several of their operational decisions. And that’s something we are very proud and very excited to see how the future will be totally driven by. Yeah. 

Ashley Coates [00:12:40] Absolutely. We’re all very curious to see that. Well, we’ve explored some interesting ideas in retail this past year. On this podcast, we’ve had some guests who have talked about livestream shopping as well as augmented reality and other technologies. Are there any technologies that you’re very curious about that you think will be absolutely a part of the future of retail? 

Maxime Cohen [00:13:02] Yes, that’s also a very interesting question. Definitely. A lot of technology I think will totally disrupt the way we are shopping runs. So the first one is definitely robotics. We will see a lot of progress of several robots can assist the shopping experience so it can be a robot in a store moving around. We can ask a question. It can interact directly with the robot. What’s the price of the product? What was some type of nutritional content of a food product? If you have any allergies, robotics can help a lot in the customer facing as well as in the backend facing, for example, to automate the warehouse. Most of large retailers now have automated warehouse and we see a lot of robotic systems are able to automate. Some tasks were very painful for humans and not allowing humans to take care of things that are much more enjoyable. So definitely robotics would be one of the technology I believe is going to really explode. Another one, going back to the product I mentioned before in the Retail Innovation Lab will be all this digital store twinning as well as augmented reality we live in. Now that the line between offline and online experiences is getting more blurry and more broadly in the U.S. in the fact that now it will be very much the same like you do offline, online, it will be very hard to know which is which and everything will be somewhat similar. And last but not least, I’m a big believer of leveraging A.I. at a very large scale, allowing a full, personalized experience. When you go to the store, the store associate will receive a message on the iPad and they will know who you are. Again, somewhat preserving the privacy elements. But then we know what you bought in a previous tweet, what you like if you have allergies, if you have preferences, if we’re talking about fashion, the type of clothing that you have, your budget, they can also ask you questions before you come to the store. So this type of personalized experience, I think, will be appreciated by a lot of people. And again, potentially offering the option to obtain opt for several customers who don’t want to have this type of personalized service. But what people would. They like to have this. It will allow each one of us to really have a personalized, fully customized experience, which I believe will be very enjoyable. 

Ned Hayes [00:15:08] Creating an enjoyable experience is important in a retail store and it keeps customers coming back. Is that return of customers important? That kind of loyalty, that ongoing commitment of returning? 

Maxime Cohen [00:15:20] Yes, definitely very important. Today, we are very fierce competition in almost all verticals. So companies are always looking for creative ways to make sure that customers are loyal. They’re returning. The lifetime value of customers should be as high as possible. So definitely that’s something that a lot of companies are thinking. A lot has been a lot of efforts to understand. And here again, A.I. and data science can help quite a bit because the more data you collect about customers experience and customer habits, then you can potentially understand who are the customers who are very loyal, who are the customers who are not loyal? And for those specific, not loyal customers, you can potentially deploy some intervention that can convert some non-royal customers to loyal customers by offering special discounts, personalized offers and so on, allowing you to increase your mass of loyal customers and ultimately making more profits. 

Ashley Coates [00:16:14] Mm hmm. Absolutely. Well, Max, I’d love to hear your perspective on AI within retail. Can you paint us a picture of an ideal customer experience and interaction with AI in a retail setting? 

Maxime Cohen [00:16:28] So again, I think my answer will go back to the previous point of personalized and efficient service. I think a lot of consumers now care about efficiency. I want to go to the store and I don’t want to waste a huge amount of time waiting in line to checkout. So there’s a lot of technology providers while providing some check out solutions that are frictionless, where you don’t wait in line and things can be done with the aid of technology. And another possibility is you come to the store and potentially the store associate only knows where you are, what type of product you browsed online, used type of products you bought in your previous visit to the store. And they can give you a very pertinent quick advice about what can be relevant for you. So to me, there was two key words efficiency, personalization. And if I could add a third world, would it be the world sustainability? I think there is a big push, especially with millennials and Gen Z type of customers that care lot about social impact and sustainability of the retailer. So companies now are deploying a lot of efforts to make sure that the entire process, the entire manufacturing process is unsustainable and as friendly to the environment as possible. 

Ashley Coates [00:17:37] Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. We’ve had many conversations on Sparkplug about sustainability and Gen Z that being a very important thing to them. So I think that’s so true. Well, I know that you’ve talked through several technologies already so far, but are there any other technologies that we should have on our radar, things we might see in a retail setting in the future? 

Maxime Cohen [00:17:56] Oh, boy, that’s a hard one. I think I’m the most excited about this air and VR, augmented reality, virtual reality for online shopping to bring totally these online offline type of experiences. So I would imagine that a couple of times. Another one, again, to say it again is robotics or robotics can be in multiple forms to reallocate items on the shelf. When there’s an empty shelf, there is a camera already detecting, sending a message to a robot. The robot is bringing back items to the shelf. Another one is drone delivery is a lot of companies have been talking quite a bit about it now. We we’ve seen several cities. We have Amazon one day guarantee delivery, which are already huge progress, too, compared to five years ago, maybe in the next few years or between faster delivery within hours or minutes. So that’s something that I would be very appreciated as customer service, another one that would be very excited. Would it be that instead of you shopping online, there will be kind of an automated smart engine shopping for you that can potentially use your smart fridge with cameras in your fridge, seeing that you are missing milk, you’re missing some other products and will automatically trigger an order and delivering the order to you without you having to think about. Of course, it raises a lot of questions in terms of ethics, in terms of privacy, in terms even of creepiness. Right. So some companies have access to what’s in your fridge and what is missing in your fridge. So definitely there’s a lot of technical challenges to be solved at the intersection of A.I. and technology, as well as ethics, privacy and all those important topics that are a little bit more towards regulations and law and how to really regulate the air space as we move forward is also a very interesting challenge that will bring a lot of different people on the table like economists, lawyers, regulators, technologists, data scientists to together to understand what is a pool of air and how to make sure that we regulate that space so that it doesn’t interfere with customer privacy. And customer predicts. 

Ashley Coates [00:19:49] Yeah, and to see what consumers want and what they’ll put up with and how much customization they want while still protecting their data. That’ll be really interesting. 

Maxime Cohen [00:19:58] Definitely. 

Ashley Coates [00:19:59] Well, Max, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a true pleasure chatting with you. We do have one last question, which is what would you like your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for? 

Maxime Cohen [00:20:11] Well, boy, that’s not an easy question. I mean, definitely being approved also provides some type of as we’re talking at the beginning, I can do some knowledge transfer to the next generation of students. So I’ll be very pleased if by the end of my career I could impact the lives of many students. When I teach, what I enjoy the most is the aha moments when the students really finally understand that some of the quantitative and teaching a real world application and they can take those concepts from the classroom to their own careers. And several years down the road they send me an email. Hey, I remember the class that you taught us, and I could use some of the concept in my own role at my company and have an impact. That’s something I’m really enjoying. That would be one of the legacy impacts many students at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate to executive level, and try to make sure that also all my walk in research and consulting can have a positive impact on the society. So I’m trying in the next few years walking quite a bit on using air with responsibility to make sure that all the deployment of air solutions are also good for the environment, good for the ethics, the privacy of users. That’s something I care a lot. And I would say the last one, as I said before, I decided to spend some of my time doing some air and data science applied to the health care sector. So one thing I’ll be very proud is at the end of my career, if I can potentially increase access to medicine to the largest number of patients, as well as to increase the use of air for preventive medicine. As I said before, it’s something that I feel potentially can save lives, and that would be something that I would be very happy to play a very small part of this ecosystem and trying to help more people have better access to medical services, as well as prevent diseases and try to increase the lifestyle of large number of people. 

Ned Hayes [00:22:04] Wow. That’s a really ambitious legacy. Thank you for sharing with us. 

Maxime Cohen [00:22:08] Thank you very much for having me again. I really enjoyed the discussion. 

Ashley Coates [00:22:11] Thank you. Eat it as well. 

Ned Hayes [00:22:13] Sparkplug is a wholly owned property of Snowshoe all content and copyright 2021 Sparkplug Media.