Through the Eyes of an Intern: Venture Day 2017

Ajay Agrawal at Venture Day 2017 (MaRS Discovery District).

“It wasn’t long after Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone that we had launched the Next 36,” said NEXT Canada Co-Founder Ajay Agrawal. “When the iPhone was released, it was viewed as reasonably remarkable, but not a single person thought it would be the product to transform the taxi industry”.

On August 15, Ajay spoke from the stage at MaRS Discovery District, where over 250 investors, mentors, and industry leaders gathered to hear a selection of Next 36 and Next Founders entrepreneurs pitch their ventures after successfully completing their NEXT Canada programs.

Before diving into the venture pitches, Ajay set the stage by reminiscing about the first ever Next 36 cohort. Seven years ago, the inaugural Next 36 cohort produced 10 mobile app ventures, but Ajay told the audience about the most remarkable one of all — Winston. As its co-founders described it, Winston was “an app that attracted fares — both individual and corporate — by making it incredibly easy to book, monitor, and pay for [taxi] rides.”

Krista Caldwell, Mindy Lau, Yilun Zhang, and Aidan Nulman at Venture Day 2011.

At the time, Winston did not capture the attention it deserved. Winston was just another app among a huge lineup of new mobile companies — including its competitor, Uber.

Even more profound is the story behind Winston’s co-founding team. When the Next 36 launched in 2010, it received hundreds of applications from across Canada. At the first National Selection Weekend, 36 finalists received a spot, yet by the end of the summer 40 entrepreneurs had graduated the program.

Aidan Nulman, Krista Caldwell, Mindy Lau, and Yilun Zhang dug their way into the program in the most unconventional manner possible, becoming known as The Other 4.

After failing to earn their spot in the program after National Selection Weekend, The Other 4 joined forces and set out to overturn their failure. Determined to live up to Reza Satchu’s very definition of entrepreneurship as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”, they became a rogue force that challenged the Next 36 co-founders with the case: “If we can do what [the selected 36] did without institutional support [the Next 36 provides], [the selected 36] are not pushing themselves enough”.

And they proved their case. During the first 5 remote months of the program, The Other 4 collectively built an app without any resources from Next 36, and went on to pitch their venture alongside the official Next 36 ventures at Prototype Day. Reza acquiesced to their efforts by labeling their pitch as “middle of the pack” quality, and welcoming them into the program.

Ajay told the story of Winston to demonstrate that no matter how knowledgeable an investor may be about a venture’s industry, or a professor about a student’s favorite subject, disruptive innovation comes as a surprise and takes many forms. This is why we were brought together at Venture Day — to celebrate the disruptors.

Murad Al-Katib at Venture Day 2017.

Venture Day keynote speaker Murad Al-Katib, Founder and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients, also lived an unconventional life, challenging the status quo and fighting against all odds to achieve what was perceived to be the impossible. A first-generation Canadian from a Turkish family who instilled in him the value of community and culture, he believed in the philosophy of driving your own destiny.

“Sir Winston Churchill once said that history will be kind to him, for he intends to write it.” Murad said. “Churchill didn’t worry about what history would say about him, because he knew he would succeed”.

Despite the challenges and doubts he faced along the way, Murad went on to earn a long list of awards and accolades, recognizing him as a national leader and entrepreneur.

This is why Reza believes the second clause of his definition of entrepreneurship, “without regard to resources currently controlled”, is so important.

“There are people with more capital, more resources, more information.” Reza said. “But as an entrepreneur, you have to suspend disbelief and attack the problem knowing full-well that Barnes & Nobles sells books and as Jeff Bezos, you’ll still sell books. Or that IBM sells computers and as Michael Dell, you’ll still sell computers”.

Next 36 Valedictorian Tricia Jose at Venture Day 2017.

“Amidst all the terrible things you hear happening in the news and around us,” Next 36’er Tricia Jose said. “NEXT stood as a testament to the fact that there are some extraordinary, mission-driven, and hard-working people out there doing everything they can to change the world and make it the best it can be.”

Tricia was the winner of the 2017 Next 36 Hepburn Valedictorian Award among other winners, including:

  • Satchu Prize (awarded to a startup with potential to lead Canada’s next generation of impact entrepreneurs): Sean Hudson, Co-founder of PropelHQ
  • Next Founders Valedictorian: Patrick Poirier, Co-founder of EruditeAI
  • Geoff Taber Alumni Achievement Award: Emilie Cushman, Co-founder of Kira Talent
  • Next 36 Outstanding Venture Award: Orbityl (Co-founded by Sean Kaiser and Kristina Pearkes)
  • Next Founders Outstanding Venture Award: LevelJump (Founded by David Bloom)

As the program comes to an end, the freshly minted Next 36 and Next Founders alumni are empowered to try and fulfill the expectations the program has handed them — to lead impactful lives, build things of significance, and become positive role models.

Thank you to the National Partners of NEXT Canada — EY, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, and Power Corporation of Canada — for providing the operational funding necessary to create a transformative experience for Canada’s most promising young entrepreneurs.