Ontario Invests in AI with $15 Million NextAI Fund

Ontario is making a massive investment in the future of the province’s AI industry.

The new 2018 Ontario budget outlines a $15 million investment in the NextAI program over three years. NextAI is a program under the NEXT Canada organization that brings in innovative AI entrepreneurs from both Canada and abroad and helps them build their companies. NextAI also helps other organizations implement AI operations.

“If you look at how well Canada is positioned, we’re certainly fighting above our weight on the research side of AI,” says Sheldon Levy, CEO of NEXT Canada. “If we’re even close to half-right that AI will have as profound an impact on the world as the internet did, then any country—Canada no different than others—will have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to create the wealth for your country. If not, then you’ve done the heavy lifting and others have taken advantage of it. That’s what I see NextAI being.”

Right now, NextAI has a single cohort that invites companies from Canada and the rest of the world in to build out their AI venture. For the last cohort, over 480 companies applied with just 30 being accepted. Companies can receive between $50,000 and $200,000 in funding. Intuitive took home $150,000 in seed funding as the winners of the last cohort’s Outstanding Venture award.

This new investment will help NextAI expand their cohort intake. That could come in the form of an additional January intake (after the regular fall one) or an expanded single cohort.

The $15 million will also help build out a strategy for NextAI to work with large companies as well as SMEs for AI adoption operations. On top of that, NextAI will build a curriculum so their program can reach more people—including hospitals. The program is in discussion with a number of care facilities to implement health AI initiatives.

“The part of it you can’t underestimate is that AI is not a thing, it is an adoption strategy that all companies have to at least consider,” says Levy. “It is a rethinking of our value system and how we use data. It will not just be one company versus another.”

But Levy knows the pure theory of running an accelerator and a business means there is some level of competition.

“There will be new applications of AI, and some of the strategies are forming new ideas and companies that didn’t exist before,” he says. “To an extent, that is competition, like there is always competition of the world’s best ideas. There is that competition for new companies that don’t exist, but it is also a huge adoption strategy for existing companies.”

One important note to consider is that NextAI has not negotiated terms of funding with the government of Ontario. Ontario will have a final say in how the funds are allocated over the next three years.

NextAI has received funding from the federal government before. Late last year, NextAI, along with Next 36 and Next Founders (all operated by NEXT Canada) picked up $3.57 million in funding. That came in the form of a matched $30,000 to each successful accelerator participant.

“We have a good position in Canada,” says Levy. “But how do we translate that position so we can bring good jobs and wealth to the province and country? NEXT plays one part of a very complex strategy that Ontario is investing in, and it’s a very smart one.”