Tales From Two Cities – How an Accelerator Program Shifted From the Physical World to the Digital, Amidst a Pandemic

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Tales From Two Cities - How an Accelerator Program Shifted From the Physical World to the Digital, Amidst a Pandemic

Veronika Kvon, Next AI – Toronto Program Manager, and Simon Dandavino, Next AI – Montreal Director of Operations, discuss how they responded, in real time, to new challenges posed by COVID-19. Despite great uncertainty and some incredibly challenging decisions, they forged ahead and kicked off Next AI in both cities, albeit remotely. Here they share how they piloted the first ever digital delivery of their programs, how their collective 50+ entrepreneurs responded and what they learned from pushing forward.

About Next AI: A world class accelerator program for artificial intelligence powered ventures and technology commercialization. Next AI is delivered on two campuses: Toronto and Montréal. Next AI – Montréal is delivered in partnership with HEC Montréal. Learn more here.

So, you’ve just wrapped Next AI immersion week in your respective cities. What is immersion week and what does it typically entail? How is it normally delivered?

VK: Immersion Week is the official kick off of our Next AI program. The week typically consists of an intensive, in person series of events, socials, lectures and workshops, bringing together all 30+ Next AI entrepreneurs and faculty from around the world. This one week takes upwards of a month to plan and execute.

SD: In Montreal, we welcome a similar group of 40+ entrepreneurs. On top of what Veronika shared, immersion week is all about creating a great first impression of the program and starting to build strong relationships within the cohort. One of the highlights for me is a dinner hosted by Power Corporation of Canada where the entrepreneurs get to meet our community. And, typically we have the most fun during a full day of pitches on the Friday, where the cohort gets to really see what the other ventures are doing and the entrepreneurs start giving each other constructive advice.  On one hand, it’s a big team bonding experience, and on the other it’s a way to make sure that all the ventures start with a more or less equal footing.

At what point did you realize you needed to make a massive change to this year’s immersion week? What was running through your head as everything started to change so quickly?

VK: COVID-19 really started escalating in Toronto the week before Immersion Week – perfect timing, right? I received an email on March 4 from a faculty member who was flying in from San Francisco. They asked if we were going to cancel or reschedule our immersion week.Then, things started changing by the day and uncertainty kicked in. 

 SD: For us in Montreal,  things really changed on Thursday March 12 (a few days before the start of Immersion Week), the day that the Quebec Prime minister François Legault made his first daily press briefing and started putting social distancing measures in place. Since Next AI – Montreal is operated by HEC Montreal, a public institution, we were one of the first affected. The first guideline was that all “non-essential” activities at HEC should be cancelled, but that classes would proceed, then new precautions were announced daily. Within hours, we went from “let’s do the cohort normally” to “let’s cancel the social events but have classes normally” to “Ok, everything has to go remote”.  

VK: In Toronto, we were confronted with similar choices, but one week behind Montreal. It’s a weird thing to say, but I’m grateful to Simon and his team for paving the way and giving me advice on how to move ahead. For our part, when other schools, universities and accelerators were choosing to postpone or cancel programs, we were faced with a go / no go decision ourselves. We needed to, very quickly (in a matter of 1 day), look at the available data and ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Could we still deliver the same level of value (education, mentorship, funding) for our entrepreneurs, remotely?
  2. Would all of our professors and facilitators easily and comfortably teach in a remote environment?
  3. Would our postponing or cancelling hurt the well being and ability to succeed for our entrepreneurs?

It turns out the answer to all 3 questions was YES and so the decision to move ahead was relatively easy. Executing is where things got difficult.  

SD: Yes, It’s unbelievable how quickly things changed, and the roller-coaster of emotions I experienced, but we also agreed that we had to move forward so that we could support the entrepreneurs.

How did you tackle the new landscape and successfully pivot to deliver immersion week remotely so quickly?

SD: Well, one of the first things was to bring the team together and support each other through the decisions. This was in itself a challenge to have everybody aligned, since everybody was affected a bit differently.  For example, we were not sure how realistic it was to keep the Friday pitches in the same format, because it’s hard to keep people’s attention for such a long time. In regards to immersion week as a whole, the most important choice was which  video conferencing platform to choose since we had never delivered programming virtually.We chose Zoom, and started doing all our conferencing on that platform right away. We learned quickly and were ready to go in a matter of days!!

 VK: Frankly, it hasn’t been easy – I’ve had some low lows and BIG challenges to overcome. Looking back, I honestly can’t believe how many decisions and changes we had to make over the course of 3 to 5 days. But, I tried to break it into a series of smaller decisions and requirements, with a focus on one day at a time. Also, as I mentioned, we had the benefit of following Montreal into the trenches so when it came to deciding which digital delivery platform to use, we took cues from Montreal, did a bit of our own research, and ultimately went with Zoom as well. Being on the same platform will be incredibly valuable as we move into full program delivery and we find new opportunities to collaborate across our teams. From there, it was a matter of onboarding our faculty, alumni and Scientists in Residence. They were all so incredibly flexible – so, a huge thank you to Professor Ajay Agrawal, Professor Graham Taylor, Professor Avi Goldfarb, Devinder Kumar, our alumni Saroop Bharwani, Krista Caldwell, Hassan Murad, and more. 

How did you keep the NAI entrepreneurs informed and how did they react?  

SD:  They were actually the first “stakeholders” that we informed and they were really grateful that we went ahead.They handled it well considering we had told them less than 12 hours earlier that the week was going on “live” as planned. I think this is one of the greatest things about working with entrepreneurs… it’s in their DNA to adapt and thrive in chaos.

VK:  Our approach was very similar. Even as we were grappling with tough choices and very little data, we wanted our Next AI cohort to feel as comfortable and confident as possible with the decisions we were making. So, we ramped up our communications and gave the current cohort full insight into the updates we were making. It wasn’t perfect information, but we did the best we could. Similar to Simon, the overwhelmingly positive and supportive response blew me away. It’s definitely in their DNA! 

So, here you are on the other side of a wild 3 weeks. You’ve both delivered Immersion Week remotely and by all accounts it was a success. Can you talk about some of the key highlights from a content and programming perspective – professors, curriculum, “networking”? What were you most impressed by?

SD: A great highlight for us was when two alumni from last year, Christopher Wells and Aamna Zia, came to talk to the cohort. They were really inspirational and the current participants had so many questions for them. From an operational point of view, I also had a bit of an “ah-ah” moment on pitch day; because we were doing everything remotely, it was so much smoother to coordinate all the pitch decks and share the recordings of the presentations. This really brought to light the potential of executing remotely. 

 VK: When it came time for execution, I thought our cohort wouldn’t be as engaged, but they were. During Professor Avi Goldfarb’s market research lecture, everyone of the entrepreneurs were prepared with questions – I wouldn’t say anything was lost from doing the lecture virtually and the chat function in Zoom actually opened up more space for real-time engagement and peer support without interrupting the lecture. Likewise, I thought their activity would reduce, but it increased. Going digital opens up lines of communication 24/7, and (although admittedly sometimes overwhelming) has really sparked increased engagement with this cohort.Their response proved, once again, how resilient entrepreneurs are, and believe me, it’s infectious.

Looking forward, what are some opportunities you see in delivering the program virtually? What are you most excited about?

 SD:  We’ve actually just decided to open the courses a bit wider to employees of NAI ventures. We would not have done this if the course had been “live”, but now we feel like it’s a good way to generate added value for them.  As Veronika previously mentioned, we’re also considering opening up content across cohorts (Toronto + Montreal) or with other ventures. I’m also looking forward to our Venture Reveal in May, which typically happens “in real life”. Doing the event remotely means that we can now invite our international network to connect directly without having to travel to Montreal. Finally, we had our first 5 à 7 this week, and frankly it was a great success. The “breakout room” function in Zoom is amazing as it allows you to generate random small groups of people.  

And why, in your opinion, is it so important we keep doing what we can to  help entrepreneurs, in particular this year’s NAI cohort

SD: The months ahead are going to be really difficult for Canadian startups.  Funding will fall drastically, as well as sales and non-essential spending. NAI can provide a community that will support entrepreneurs through this very hard time. This includes mental wellness support and providing much needed stability.  I was talking to an alumni from 2019 just this week and he was almost “jealous” that he wasn’t doing NAI this year.  It can be lonely as an entrepreneur and a support network through a crisis like this can make a huge difference. Our team of coaches and mentors are also ready to provide advice and guidance to navigate the crisis, and pay attention to the opportunities that arise.

VK: Agreed. I would just add that for me personally, their resilience is truly what moves me forward and sometimes, even if they don’t realize it, they are the ones supporting me. Their passion drives mine and this is why it’s so important to keep doing what we can to help entrepreneurs like the ones in the current Next AI cohort. These amazing individuals and teams drive our country forward in good times and, especially now,  through crisis.