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A Closer Look At The Next 36

“There is a rumour,” says Peter Carrescia with a straight face. “One of the co-founders had taught a class on entrepreneurship at U of T; rumour has it that the class only held 36 people.” But then, the managing director of The Next 36 smiles. “The truth is, with the kind of intimate mentorship we provide, this simply isn’t a program that can scale to hundreds of people.”

Six years since its inception, Canada’s foremost incubator program for budding entrepreneurs is boasting a record number of 22 ventures in its current batch.

The goal has stayed as clear as the floor-to-ceiling glass walls in their Bloor Street offices. Carrescia says, “the mission of The Next 36 is to minimize and close the prosperity gap in Canada,” referring to a proven record of perpetual second fiddle to the US economy. “We don’t have enough people swinging for the fences,” he says, and now more than ever, The Next 36 is determined to provide their candidates with the boost required to jump the proverbial gap.

Born in 2010 within University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, a simplistic origin story of The Next 36 is that four people looked across the border and decided to foster entrepreneurial spirit amongst the promising. Candidate selection kicks off when program representatives tour university campuses across Canada, and sometimes even the States, in the late summer—often, applicants from the States are Canadians who are looking to return after completing their tertiary education or specialised certificates. Recruitment ensues through the fall, and extensive paperwork is also accompanied by video applications till a shortlist of 72 people is arrived at.

Thanks to more than two decades of experience in the venture capital and tech industries, Carrescia knows that success in the program or the real world isn’t purely achieved on the strength of ideas or money invested. This means that more than anything, the program seeks out unique people, not products. The selected 72 are invited to Toronto for a weekend of intensive interviews with prospective mentors, venture capitalists, business leaders and successful entrepreneurs, and each year Carrescia asks, “Can we identify high-potential individuals coming out of university, with the right mix of academic skills, charisma and entrepreneurial drive?” After interview performances are aggregated, invitations are extended to the 36 that are ideally suited to the program.

Many candidates are fourth-years in undergraduate courses, and Master’s students aren’t uncommon either. After a crash course in smart ideation, thinking in terms of scalability and how to identify strong colleagues, candidates are set loose for about five weeks, were the objective is to finalise both an idea for a business and a partner to develop the idea with.

Jon French, the director of marketing and communications for The Next 36, has been with the program since its first batch, and he says that initially what the program did was to “pick the top 36 students across Canada and socially engineer them into teams of 3.” Over time, however, in-house facilities at different universities like Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone or McGill’s X-1 Accelerator started to nurture a more specialised and experienced batch of applicants. Within the past two years, the rules have changed—now, in an effort to replicate reality as far as possible, the program allows candidates to pull in co-founders from outside the ranks as well, encouraging risk-taking even amongst external partners.

Mentors are assigned to each participant, and co-founders and ventures are solidified by the end of the year. This is when the initial flow of investments begins—each member of The Next 36 is eligible for up to $50k in investment pending the strength of their pitches and plans for the future. While few get the full amount, even a few thousands can go a long way for any venture just starting to enter the arena. January onwards, candidates go through a sort of pitch-rehearsal process, repeatedly massaging their venture, product and presentation under the tutelage of mentors and program officials, first in person and eventually over the phone or video chat. The entire batch then moves into University of Toronto’s graduate house for four months at the start of May and undertakes a curriculum set by Ajay Agarwal, the current Peter Munk Professor of Entrepreneurship. This experience features guest lectures from the world over and—most importantly—the company of other aspiring risk-takers.

Participants may have their sights set on big money or networking, but as French explains, for program insiders, The Next 36 is “a long term play to make Canada more prosperous and innovative.” Carrescia and French both insist that The Next 36 is not an accelerator: while accelerators boost companies and products towards established goals, the combination of mentorship, education, capital and a network of helpful contacts prioritises the continuing development of individuals more than it looks for immediate dollar signs.

At the end of their residency, the candidates “graduate” with a final presentation to the entire cohort, mentors, investors, business partners and all, which doesn’t necessarily imply a spike investments either. “The odds are that nine out of ten of them will fail; it’s just statistics,” says French. “But through founder development—which is providing education, a network and mentorship—we can teach the entrepreneurs in the program so that their second or third company has a much higher probability of success.”

Though The Next 36 has produced distinguished successes like wearable-focused Thalmic Labs, the biometric authenticator Nymi and Sampler, a customizable digital sampling program, ultimately, its key contribution seems to be in building up a community who thinks alike and thinks together. Many alumni continue working together within Canada, but many also build unique communities overseas—Carrescia says that there are around 35 alumni from the program currently based in Silicon Valley, and they regularly host meet-ups and facilitate networking opportunities for others in the Next 36 family, even across different years. French estimates that up to 70 per cent of alumni also give back to the program financially,  and often they stay in touch with their erstwhile mentors, providing feedback and advice about The Next 36 where appropriate.

Ultimately, given the forward-thinking objective of The Next 36, it’s likely that the Canadian economy will only see a spike in the number of innovation-focused businesses in the coming years, but in the meantime, the program is committed to separating entrepreneurs from what French jokingly refers to as “wantrepreneurs.” Often this distinction is influenced by chutzpah, risk-taking and the candidate’s particular approach to the people around him, but more often than not, the dividing line is hidden beneath the way candidates handle setbacks.

“After all, Bill Gates started two businesses before Microsoft, right? It is not a failure if the business they’ve created failed,” says Carrescia. “The question is what they do next. Do they found another company right after that? That, to me, is success.”

Vibhu Gairola--or just Vibz--is a freelance writer and editor with a flair for the details. Currently based in Toronto, he has previously lived in Singapore and India, which has given him a soft sport for cultural, design and urban trend reporting. His work has appeared in Toronto Life, The Toronto Star, Reader's Digest and W Dish, and he's gone by Vibz for so long that some friends routinely forget how to spell his legal name. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter at @v_ibz.
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