Artificial intelligence (AI) is definitely having its moment as the leading trend in technology right now. It seems to be the focus of every event and news article about Toronto’s burgeoning startup scene. While some are writing it off as a buzzword, NEXT Canada, one of the country’s leading non-profit startup accelerators, recognized the potential of this rich and varied development area. So much so, they decided to make it the focus of their latest incubator program, NextAI.
NextAI was announced in October 2016 at the Rotman School of Management Machine Learning Conference. The in-depth, 8-month program seeks to leverage Canada’s leadership position in the industry to support startup founders through capital, mentorship, education, and a strong support network.
“The AI landscape in Canada already had decades of research behind it. Unfortunately, it was missing the opportunities to commercialize that research, push the technology, and deepen expertise,” Annick Dufort, Program Manager of NextAI explains.
“We want to create knowledge and opportunities so that AI can be born and built in Canada, with direct links to business partners to create direct applications that meet needs.”
Applicants went through a rigorous review process and, once selected, were given $50,000 of initial funding, with up to $150,000 of additional funding available upon completion. To ensure a high level of productivity and collaboration throughout the experience, the chosen founders were also given 24/7 access to Project Spaces King West. This allowed the NextAI participants to work closely together in a shared office, while connecting with an established community of entrepreneurs from a wide range of sectors.
The founders moved in during February and, throughout the spring and summer months, have made a home for themselves on the 4th floor of a century-old brick and beam building in the heart of Toronto’s King West neighbourhood. “We have a quiet, pretty space where we can focus and get things done, and can also access other founders, awesome coffee, and King West amenities,” says Krista Caldwell, Co-Founder of Deepnify.
Annick Dufort agrees. “The peer network for founders going through our program is one of the biggest advantages. Having a hub like Project Spaces for everyone to collaborate and grow together is crucial,” she explains.“I think the open concept has allowed us to interact with other teams easier.” says Nick Seelert, Co-Founder and CTO of Senso.AI. “It’s my first experience in a coworking space and it’s been good to get out rather than work from home. I get wrapped in my own head and need to get out.”
So far, the results have been positive. On top of workspace, founders were treated to a busy schedule of seminars and workshops at the University of Toronto, taught by some of the industry’s top thought leaders. Noel Webb, Co-Founder of Karen.AI, describes the curriculum and faculty as “beyond world class.”
“Getting access to this type of faculty in one institution is impossible - full stop. It’s like doing a Harvard MBA in 8 months. The educational value alone is unparalleled,” Webb says.
Exposure to new ideas and learning from bigger, older, and failed companies has provided useful insights for the teams as they make plans to grow. Across the board, the founders have been thrilled with the program. They note, however, that the intensive experience is not for those looking for an easy ride. “You don’t get to just come and exist. You get out of the program what you put into it,” David Vradenburg, Co-Founder of Karen.AI warns prospective applicants.
Efforts are rewarded with huge opportunities, though. The ecosystem has been thoughtfully designed to support startups at every stage, on both technical and business development. The financial, technical, business, and moral support come together in the program through a curated network, convenient location, and incredible mentors that have been selected to meet the needs of all the unique businesses involved.
The companies are distinct and offer a wide cross section of the current AI landscape. Some are taking on global challenges, others are addressing niche problems, but they’re all impacting diverse industries. Deepnify is tackling supply and demand issues in the food industry, Senso.AI is disrupting the financial sector and mortgage lending, Karen.AI and Neemo are addressing inefficiencies in HR and recruiting, Operant is targeting call centres, and Intuitive is rethinking the standard garbage bin. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“I get to learn a lot about the state of AI in different sectors - from petroleum to food to motion animation - and help pinpoint how we can find opportunities to apply AI in each industry,” NextAI’s AI Scientist Devinder Kumar says about consulting with the program participants. “It’s a learning opportunity for me working with diverse companies.”
Regardless of industry, the startups have made huge strides with support from the program. “NextAI’s advisors, and their network and connections have helped us get to this point,” Hassan Murad, Co-Founder of Intuitive says. “We’ve seen through their lens how to make predictions and decisions for our business.”
As a capstone, NEXT Canada will be hosting NextAI Venture Day on September 20th to showcase the first cohort’s journey and products. Although the inaugural program is coming to a close, the relationships made will last forever. “Project Spaces has very collaborative culture,” Frank Meng, Founder of Neemo says. “Something I personally gained from this experience, it might sound cheesy, but I’ve made a lot of friends here.”