Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence

How NEXT Canada is helping businesses commercialize the machine-learning revolution

NextAI alumna, Nargiz Mammadova, demonstrates the Destin.ai platform to guests at NEXT Canada’s Venture Day in September, 2018.

By Daphne Gordon

IN PARTNERSHIP WITH NEXT CANADA

 

Artificial intelligence is about to disrupt everything. And Canada will benefit if businesses can learn how to adopt the technologies, says the leader of a founder-development incubator for Canada’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

“It’s a challenge for every industry,” says Sheldon Levy, CEO of NEXT Canada, explaining that while Canada is already known as a research hotspot on the subject of machine learning, adoption of artificial intelligence technologies by the business world is a crucial next step.

Transformation is coming

It’s crucial because Levy describes the transformation that is coming due to artificial intelligence as similar in scope to that of the Internet.

“It will affect everything,” he says, “and businesses using AI will begin to dominate the economy.”

That’s why NEXT Canada launched NextAI, an accelerator program designed to help entrepreneurs who are applying AI technologies in their businesses.

It’s the organization’s third program devoted to helping high-potential entrepreneurs to succeed, with hundreds of founders benefitting from NextAI, Next 36 and Next Founders since the non-profit was founded in 2010 by a group of business leaders and academics.

NextAI accepted its first cohort in early 2017 and 40 companies have since completed the eight-month program. It includes seed funding of up to $200,000, office space in Toronto or Montreal, and business instruction from industry professionals and award-winning faculty from top universities.

The incubator brings talent and entrepreneurs together with academic, corporate and government partners, all with the goal of positioning Canada as a leader in the global race to establish centres of excellence in the commercial application of AI.

With almost a third of the AI ventures devoted to healthcare, Levy has said that one of NEXT Canada’s bigger goals is to foster innovation in the Canadian healthcare system.

The program accepts hundreds of applications from around the world each year. As a designated entity under the Startup Visa Program, NEXT Canada can assist international participants in getting a fast-tracked visa. It allows them to work in Canada for the duration of the program and speeds up the path to permanent residency.

NextAI helped startup founder Nargiz Mammadova get her AI-enabled product to market. When she entered the program in February of 2018, her idea was to help potential immigrants to Canada, allowing them to converse online with an intelligent chatbot that could streamline the legal process of coming here.

“I understood, as an immigrant, that the process of coming here can be complicated,” says Mammadova, who came to Canada from Azerbaijan. “And I knew I was not the only one. Immigration is a hard challenge.”

Destin.ai launched in September and now has about 5,000 active users. The bot answers questions, assesses the eligibility of applicants and connects users with immigration lawyers.

Educating businesses about AI

NEXT Canada is also developing a tailored education program, set to launch in 2019, that will help established companies harness the AI solutions that startups create.

“We’re putting in place an exciting program that works with partners on hands-on adoption, helping companies understand the opportunity and challenges posed by AI,” says Levy. “It means reimagining the business with data at the heart of it.”

Educating stakeholders is part of the path to growth for AI-enabled startups, agrees Mammadova. She assures immigration lawyers and consultants, who can use her platform to find clients, that Destin.ai is not designed to replace them.

“The key is explaining what you’re doing, why it has value and how it can be impactful,” said Mammadova. “It’s not that AI will replace you. It’s more about how our tool can help you.”

Creating prosperity for Canadians

If the AI program follows in the footsteps of NEXT’s other programs, entrepreneurial success stories are on the horizon. One graduate of Next 36, Emilie Cushman, credits the program for helping her startup become a global enterprise.

With more than 30 staff in Toronto and offices around the world, Kira Talent provides holistic admissions services for higher education, allowing schools to assess candidates for traits like leadership, critical thinking and communication.

“I never pictured myself owning a business,” says Cushman, an alumni rep on the NEXT board. She’d planned on entering politics after completing her undergrad degree in 2012. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world. The NEXT mission is Canadian prosperity, and I think that’s what we’re achieving.”