NEXT Canada showcases first ventures in its NextAI program

next 36

If you build it, they will come. If you impress them, they might even invest.

This was the image NEXT Canada seemed to be going for during its mid-program demo day hosted at Scotiabank’s Digital Factory in Toronto, where they not only invited members of community to hear eight promising NEXT Canada startups pitch, but they gave each audience member four chips ‘worth’ $25,000 each to ‘invest’ in the startups whose pitches they liked best.

The winner, based on the amount that the audience ‘invested in them,’ was given an hour of mentorship with Michael Zerbs, the global CTO of Scotiabank, a huge prize for advice and also a potential sales lead.

The startups varied in industry, size, and NEXT program.

NEXT consists of NEXT36 for student entrepreneurs just getting started; NEXT Founders for scale-ups; and NextAI, a niche program focused on advancing artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The ‘investor’ model was a huge success, not only for audience engagement, but also for the startups themselves.

Community building

Before I walked into the event, I was excited for the pitches, but really only had one question on my mind: would there be food?

Cut to signing in, and when they hand me my name tag I am given four $25,000 chips. I immediately feel like a high roller in Macau. I’m suddenly exclusively focused on who is pitching.

It’s almost like the startups gained 100 new customer experts just because they had some skin in the game.
 

I can’t speak for everyone, but the few people I chatted with about the ‘investing’ system loved it because it gave folks a sense of participation. We weren’t just watching the pitches; we were part of the madness.

“It’s critical for Canada to address the talent shortage not only of technical skills, but also of people who understand innovation and understand getting in the minds of the customer,” said Zerbs during his opening remarks.

Thinking on this statement, I can’t help but see the ‘investing’ part of the night as aiding this mission. When you ask people to engage and give them a reason to – in this case, being mock investors – you activate their minds as if they were investors or customers.

It’s almost like the startups gained 100 new customer experts just because they had some skin in the game.

Startup support

This intensity helped the startups, too, who got tons of feedback and hard hitting questions from the audience.

For the audience, it was also an opportunity to get a first look at the startups in NEXT Canada’s Next AI program that launched in October 2016.

Cultura, a “CEO in your pocket” app that uses machine learning to identify what decisions a CEO would make in a given scenario to help junior employees make on-brand decisions, talked a great deal about how founders and leaders build corporate culture not through their words, but through their decisions.

Continuing the trend of using machine learning to improve human decision making, Senso built an AI platform that helps qualify mortgage leads – a technology that has the potential to save the lending industry billions of dollars in bad loan costs and, according to the founders, even pre-empt a 2008-style crash from happening again as bankers won’t have to scramble to cover up bad debts.

These companies will inevitably need support teams as they grow, and No Strato was built to help. Built by a coder who released an app last year – and downloaded 8 million times – to help people find Pokémon using AI, No Strato takes the predictive power of AI to customer support.

The platform starts by suggesting answers to support questions based on previous tickets and FAQs. From there, it can be left on auto pilot, so the technology will answer your tickets for you. He drew on his experience working at Uber, where they estimate each of the tens of millions of support tickets cost $4.00 in people resources. With his technology, even a small percentage savings could save companies millions of dollars.

All of these startups were incredible, but the cool-factor winner was Intuitive, an AI-powered garbage can that automatically sorts your garbage from your organics and recyclables.

The technology alone has the power to change the world, given that currently only two percent of recyclable materials make it into recycling plants, say the founders. However, the cool part is once the materials go in the bin, the AI can identify the brand and type of garbage coming through, meaning they will be able to map brands to where they are thrown out – the world’s first point of disposal data collector.

From the latest Next Founders cohort, Level Jump (formerly Lurniture) pitched its sales-onboarding platform that helps new sales people make their first sale 30 percent faster. A salesperson at heart, founder David Bloom brought cold, hard numbers to the conversation but warmed them up by walking the audience through the story of sales manager Sally working diligently to onboard new hire Neil, and how Level Jump’s machine learning algorithms would help Neil close his first deal faster.

Mogile Technologies also pitched its product, ChargeHub, an app that helps track and locate charging stations for electric vehicles. Given that current charging stations (46,000 of them in North America) are in decentralized clusters, Charge Hub has the potential to amalgamate them into one network. This will have a huge impact for self-driving cars in the future, as the technology can integrate with the vehicle computers.

The two Next 36 startups dove into the world of ear-tech, with Orbityl pitching its insomnia solution, and Orello pitching its proprietary, tech-based hearing aid solution.

Orbityl is an ear bud that tracks brain waves through EEG technology. Since the majority of insomnia sufferers wear ear plugs, say the founders, this technology fits well into the habits of its core user. As well, they are unique in their space because current tech solutions – computer mediation style programs – rely on user input data, which is prone to error. Orbityl’s data tracking is more accurate, offering higher quality custom sleep plans for users based on real, personal data trends.

In the hearing aid world, the average cost is upwards of $2,000 and the average wait time is two to eight weeks, requiring multiple specialist appointments. Orello has a proprietary ear piece that is discreet and molds to your ear. Its smartphone app self-tunes the aid, meaning users will have more control and comfort. All this costs less than a third of the traditional process, giving Orello the potential to revolutionize the world for the hearing impaired and deaf.

Senso came in third place with $1.85 million ‘raised’ from the audience; Intuitive came in second with $1.975 ‘raised’; and Orbityl came in first place with $2.1 million ‘raised.’

Canada’s startup ecosystem

All of these startups are coming to market with potentially huge ideas, and organizations like NEXT Canada are offering more than just an opportunity to pitch.

The program has already seen some amazing success, with its nearly 100 startups raising over $250 million in funding.

The new frontiers of artificial intelligence and machine learning are on everyone’s mind, but executive director John Kelleher believes NEXT can lead in this space through its program focused on identifying smart entrepreneurs, teaching them the necessary skills, and building a community around them to push them forward.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.