Written by: Mariam Walaa
NEXT Canada’s annual Prototype Day marked a full house at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday morning, as entrepreneurs and industry leaders came together to learn about the ideas that will be brought to life over the next four months during the Entrepreneurship Institute.
18 founders from the Next 36, Next Founders, and the inaugural NextAI cohorts had the opportunity to give the NEXT mentors, advisors, and investors a first glimpse at their early-stage ventures, and receive valuable feedback on the next steps in their journey.
Ajay Agrawal, Co-founder of NEXT Canada, kicked off the morning by emphasizing three critical steps for building a successful venture: identify an opportunity by a demand that needs to be filled or a problem that needs to be solved; build something to address that demand; and create an infrastructure of talent to be able to see it through with an entrepreneurial mindset. He concluded by acknowledging NEXT Canada’s National Partners, NextAI Founding Partners, and all of our supporters.
With Ajay’s words in mind, the pitches began. Founders from all three programs demonstrated their drive to tackle big problems. The panel, moderated by Erin Bury, NEXT Advisor and Managing Director at Eighty-Eight Agency, featured: Janet Bannister, NEXT mentor and General Partner at Real Ventures; Gideon Hayden, Next 36 alumnus and Co-founder/Partner at Leaders Fund; and Michelle McBane, Venture Capital Investor at MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund. The pitches showcased a number of unique ideas that ventures are working on bringing to market, giving the panelists a handful of tough questions to ask and provide feedback to.
Alexander Hong, Co-founder of Robot Playtime, delivered a memorable pitch accompanied by his friendly bot. His venture provides a platform that allows K-12 students to foster their raw creativity and imagination by building a robot without any prior technical experience.
“I had the amazing opportunity to pitch my early-stage startup to investors and an audience of 130 people on Prototype Day!” said Alexander. “This gave me exposure and the chance to network with many industry leaders and the NEXT community. It was also a valuable learning experience for me to hear direct feedback from the investors and the audience.”
Next 36 venture WeavAir, co-founded by University of Toronto Chemical Engineering PhD student Natalia Mykhaylova, harnesses sensor technology and pattern recognition to improve health and save money through connected air filter technology.
N36’er Jessica Bilmer is tackling a different opportunity in stem cell research. Her venture, C’ellebox, is a mail-in stem cell collection and storage service that allows women to store their menstrual blood in order to heal a wide range of diseases in the future.
“After reflecting on prototype day, I thought it was incredible to see such a huge mix of businesses, agnostic of industry, all come together to discuss and share their ideas,” said Jessica. “I was impressed by the representation and diversity, especially of women in the room. I'm excited for the summer programming and grateful to have access to NEXT Canada's incredible network of entrepreneurs.”
Following the N36 pitches came the Next Founders’, the entrepreneurs who are looking to accelerate and scale their ventures. Next Founder Erin Laidley is working on her biotechnology company, Innovative Protein Technologies, to change the way we fertilize and protect our agriculture by creating organic frost protection solutions for small to medium sized farms.
Next Founder David Bloom's Leveljump (previously Lurniture) is a SaaS venture helping companies onboard reps faster and increasing win rates while providing video-based coaching for the modern sales team.
Prototype Day was also the first look at some of the ventures from the newly launched NextAI program. Noel Webb, Co-founder and CEO of Karen.ai, is building a venture that reviews all jobs and candidate submissions immediately with the support of artificial intelligence. Karen engages candidates via text to follow up with pre-screening, keeping candidates informed on the status of their applications and saving recruiters time by revealing the top candidates.
A common theme that arose amongst NextAI companies was the focus on AI’s potential to augment human capabilities, rather than replace them altogether. As Noel Webb emphasized during his pitch, “AI is meant to enhance prediction and augmentation. AI’s job is not to impart judgement.”
Overall, the panelists provided hard-hitting feedback to the entrepreneurs. Janet encouraged doubling down on the core value proposition and what the end-user benefit will be; Gideon emphasized that focus is necessary for piquing investors’ interests and being memorable; and Michelle recommended focusing on the pain points and never losing sight of the problem at hand. Ultimately, they agreed that focusing on and refining the value proposition through ongoing iteration is key.
As a final piece of advice, Janet pointed out Canada’s ability to compete with the United States: “So many of our Canadian tech entrepreneurs have great products,” she says. “But where they fall down particularly is in terms of sales and marketing. Companies in Silicon Valley spend less on engineering and more on sales and marketing. Canadians may have great products, but they need to figure out how they will acquire mass customer adoption.”
Over the next four months, NEXT entrepreneurs will commit to working on their ventures full-time, as they receive founder development, mentorship, access to funding, and an invaluable network that will help them build and accelerate their businesses.
As Ajay noted in his remarks: “This is the caterpillar stage. Only a few will go on to become butterflies, but those who do not will still gain vital knowledge that will help them in future pursuits.”
Mariam is the Marketing Intern at NEXT Canada