Established in 2011, NEXT Canada is one of Canada’s strongest and most dedicated entrepreneurial network, made up of over 500 top Canadian academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and founders. By providing access to mentorship, education and funding, NEXT helps uncover Canada’s next generation of entrepreneurs and accelerates their success trajectory.
In a recent interview with The Inc. Magazine, NEXT Canada’s CEO, Kyle Winters, and the organization’s AI Academic Director, Professor Graham Taylor, shared valuable insights into the organization’s progress and solutions for transforming the business world.
Below are the highlights of the interview.
Give us a brief about your professional journey.
Kyle – I’ve been lucky to have had a very diverse professional career, ranging from athletics to academia, health research, and entrepreneurship.
I started my career coaching elite gymnastics at the provincial and national levels. To this day, I’m inspired by great gymnasts who – through practice and dedication- can make the almost impossible look simple and beautiful. However, the thing I loved most about coaching was working with individuals to achieve things they didn’t know they could.
A little further along in my career, I entered the world of corporate partnerships and fundraising – and once again found my coaching skills helpful as I led teams of diverse people with diverse skills.
My current role as CEO of NEXT Canada is incredibly rewarding because I lead a talented team of professionals and have the privilege of mentoring young entrepreneurs with huge ambitions. Our program participants and alumni inspire me every day, and I hope they will look back one day and say that NEXT was integral in helping them achieve what they initially may have thought was impossible.
Tell us about your company and its service/ product offerings.
Kyle – NEXT Canada was created in 2011 to support the growth trajectory of aspiring and scaling entrepreneurs. With the support and leadership from NEXT Canada’s Co-founders and Founding Patrons, NEXT has grown to become one of Canada’s top entrepreneurial networks, with graduates achieving significant milestones in their entrepreneurial careers and contributing to a stronger Canadian economy.
At NEXT, we pride ourselves on being founder-focused. Each year, we accept participants from across Canada into one of our three programs – Next 36, Next AI, and Next Founders. Through courses and workshops led by world-class faculty, mentorship from global leaders, and venture funding, all participants who successfully graduate from our programs gain the core skills, strategies, and confidence needed to build businesses.
Next 36, our flagship program, was developed specifically for students and recent graduates with entrepreneurial aspirations. Every year, the top 36 most promising entrepreneurs from any discipline are accepted and put through rigorous programming. Successful candidates come from diverse backgrounds, some with an early-stage venture and others with simply an idea. What they all have in common is a passion for entrepreneurship and the drive to thrive.
From the success of the Next 36 program, Next Founders and Next AI were developed to broaden the support for Canadian entrepreneurs. Next AI offers programming in both Toronto and Montréal, with the Montréal program being delivered in collaboration with HEC Montréal. It is specifically designed for early-stage artificial intelligence ventures. While Next 36 and Next AI look at early-stage startups, Next Founders focuses on growth-stage founders who are ready to take their ventures to the next level.
Looking ahead, we aim to continue our support of Canadian entrepreneurs and the exponential impact our alumni are having on the Canadian economy. Having launched more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, who have raised more than $2B in capital investments, and created thousands of jobs from coast to coast, we feel well poised for success. We will continue to rally around the next generation of entrepreneurs and empower them to reach new levels.
What fascinated you about the AI industry?
Kyle – There’s very little about AI that doesn’t fascinate me. At its most fundamental level, AI helps us to reduce the cost of prediction. Decisions that took hours to make only a few years ago can now be made in milliseconds. But the learning capability of AI stands out for me – the idea that technology can get better and better with every interaction – that’s mind-boggling to me.
When I consider the applications of AI across multiple sectors, I realize that we are only just beginning to appreciate its potential uses. Through our various cohorts, we see applications of AI used in a wide range of industries, from agriculture to education, transport, healthcare, and so many more. We are at a point where AI is a factor for almost every venture that is considering scaling.
What were some of the challenges your company experienced in the past?
Kyle – By the nature of our alumni network and partners, we attract great employees with ambitious goals. Given the nature of our ecosystem, our employees have great exposure to some of Canada’s leading startups and are often approached to take on leadership roles in our alumni ventures. However, it gives me great pride to see someone from our team become a driver for an innovative alumni venture – it means we recruit great talent, and I’m happy to see our team members succeed in their careers.
Give us your take on the emerging AI trends and the changing demographics of the AI Industry.
Graham – When evaluating emerging trends, much of the past discussion around AI focused on rapidly advanced automation that could replace human work, that is, automating jobs with limited complexity. Now we’re moving toward a period of human-machine co-creation. Prediction Machines by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb is an excellent resource that describes the past five years. In that book, they talk about the value of human judgment, which complements predictive power. In most cases where decisions affect a person’s lived experience, a human should be in-the-loop, interpreting the predictions made by AI, executing judgment, and providing important feedback that can be used to improve the AI system.
If Prediction Machines nicely captured the last five years, what about now? We’re beginning in a new era where AI is not just predictive; it can be used as a creative tool. An example is the number of startups building on top of large language models like GPT-3. These models are typically featured in composing text, but they can also compose code in various programming languages. GitHub’s Copilot is an example of human-machine pair programming. We’re seeing compelling examples of generating digital assets like images by way of models such as DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion. The next co-design stage will be rolling out to scientific R & D, too, for example, in de novo drug and materials design.
When I look at the changing demographics, I would say that we are at the end of the “ImageNet decade.”, which is a positive change for diversity & inclusion. ImageNet is a carefully curated and annotated dataset that really supports deep learning’s advances. The version of it that is commonly used consists of around 1M images cropped around a central entity, and each image is labelled with one of 1,000 distinct categories. A key feature of this dataset is that it is well-balanced; that is, there is an approximate number of examples per class.
Over time, we have been improving at coping with category imbalance and situations where there are few to no examples of a particular category in the training dataset. We’re getting better at coping with changes in training data distribution vs. the distribution of data that a model consumes after deployment. These improvements will lead to models that don’t just perform well for the average person but to future models that will better support minority groups underrepresented in the training data. More than recommender systems, it will be an era of personalization: personalized medicine, personalized music therapy, and personalized content like job ads or resumes tailored to a particular position.
We’ll continue to see a culture change in tech, with increased collaborations with arts and social sciences and AI training programs moving beyond algorithm development to include fairness, accountability, transparency, and ethics. We’ll also see an increase in the number and influence of organizations that strive for transparency and accountability in the workforce and net-positive AI.
As an AI leader, what are the key insights that drive your company apart from others?
Kyle – All entrepreneurs who apply to our program undergo a rigorous application process, complete with reviews from alumni and our partners. With the combination of our team and our community, we can find raw talent who are seizing opportunities that others have not seen. Some of our alumni have come through our program with a venture that addresses a very specific need and becomes very successful as their product is so differentiated and it has an immediate impact on society.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, what were a few things you observed about the AI space? / Give us your about how COVID-19 has affected the AI industry.
Graham – The workplace has been the front line for discussions around EDI, and I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the future of the workplace. Quoting an article I read in the Guardian in 2021, “Apart from prison or a long spell in hospital, the workplace is the one place in adult life where we have no choice but to mix daily with people whom we would otherwise not necessarily choose to, or have the chance to.”
It’s difficult to predict the future of the workplace, but many experts think it will be very different than it was pre-COVID. Many of us are working remotely and may continue to do so indefinitely. If we’re working from our bubbles, what does this do for EDI? As this article says, “We actually need more opportunities for people of different backgrounds and perspectives to mix regularly, not fewer.”
This is where it becomes more sci-fi. In the future, as our person-to-person interactions drop amid new pandemics and other global threats, humans may work alongside an increasing number of AIs. Our future workplace colleagues and creative collaborators might be AIs. That’s why it’s so essential that AI is built by diverse teams and that practitioners regularly consult with experts from different disciplines, as we want AI to help expand our thinking, not collapse it.
In the next few years, where is your company headed? Are you future-ready?
Kyle – In the next few years, we plan on expanding significantly and impacting more entrepreneurs in Canada. We plan to continue leveraging insights from our alumni community. Combined with the support of our vast network, we aim to have our entrepreneurs at the forefront of Canadian innovation.