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Development program helps entrepreneurs take that Next step

Karl Martin, Founder and CEO of Nymi Inc., puts on a Nymi wrist-worn device at the company’s downtown Toronto offices on Nov. 1.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Wearable tech entrepreneur Karl Martin has always built things – toys as a young child, robots as a teenager, a startup based on a process using heartbeats – in lieu of passwords and keycards – as a biometric identifier, after graduating with a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Toronto.

For all his engineering smarts, though, Mr. Martin knew he would need a stronger business grounding to build and grow the enterprise he co-founded with Foteini Agrafioti into "a much more significant" company.

He credits Next Founders – a unique MBA-level professional-development program for entrepreneurs – with launching the company, now called Nymi Inc., on a path that has taken it well beyond the initial goal of simply licensing its technology to third parties.

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"We would have definitely been underselling our potential" had the company gone no further than licensing agreements, said Mr. Martin, who developed the skills needed to raise $35-million in venture capital, create the hardware to support the technology and market it to prospective clients.

The Nymi wrist band uses each wearer's unique electrocardiogram signal as a biometric password to gain authorized access to files and equipment.

This addresses security concerns about compromised access codes or lost key cards, he said.

The technology has been pilot-tested in financial institutions and industrial settings "and we're going into scaled commercial deployment at the beginning of next year."

Mr. Martin and his fellow students learned from the best.

Business professors from Harvard, the University of Toronto, Georgetown University and MIT's Sloan School of Management provide the Next Founders' academic content, which is tailored specifically for the founders of early-stage ventures "with traction."

Subjects include "an introduction to applied economics in the context of innovation and strategy"; international business diplomacy; strategic experimentation and crowdfunding; market research and entrepreneurial finance.

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Reza Satchu, managing partner of investment management firm Alignvest Management Corp., provides a pragmatic business perspective with a course that covers techniques for recognizing emerging business opportunities, understanding financing choices, managing growth and "successfully monetizing" the value of a business.

An initiative of Next Canada, a not-for-profit charity established by business and academic leaders to support the next generation of entrepreneurs, Next Founders is unique in that it provides world-class business education – at no cost – to a select group of 15 to 20 high-potential entrepreneurs every year, said Sheldon Levy, who left his job as Ontario's deputy minister of advanced education and skills development to become Next Canada's chief executive officer.

Mr. Levy, who assumed his new role on Nov. 1, is also a former president of Ryerson University, which established its Digital Media Zone incubator for tech startups during his tenure.

Virtually all Canadian universities and colleges now offer academic programs in entrepreneurship studies, innovation labs and incubators for emerging entrepreneurs, Mr. Levy said.

Organizations such as Export Development Canada, Business Development Canada and Chamber of Commerce branches, among others, offer workshops, seminars and webinars on a range of business topics.

There is a lot of support for entrepreneurs in Canada, said Alexandra McGregor, Next Canada's program manager.

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Next Founders takes it to the next level, she said.

"It's more than an MBA [for entrepreneurs]," Mr. Levy said.

"It [the program] also puts them in touch with venture capitalists, it puts them in touch with mentors who can support them. It's extremely practical in terms of what a founder needs now … but looks forward to what they will need in the future as well."

Based loosely on the Olympic movement's Own the Podium concept, Next Canada's stated mission is to increase national prosperity by supporting exceptional entrepreneurs and innovators with the potential to create globally competitive companies.

(The organization also supports the Next 36 program for student entrepreneurs and recently launched a new initiative called Next AI, a Toronto-based accelerator for artificial-intelligence startups with global ambitions.)

Many large corporations offer time off and tuition support to employees pursuing executive MBAs and other professional-development opportunities.

"In some ways, Next Founders is playing that critical role of professional development for entrepreneurs," Mr. Levy said.

Mr. Martin, who was part of the Next Founder's inaugural program in the summer of 2013, said he still refers regularly to the course notes he took at the time.

"One of the most immediate benefits was really being educated on venture financing," he said.

Many first-time entrepreneurs are so focused on getting the money in the bank that they "don't really understand the other terms and the strings that come attached with that [the early-stage] financing."

The courses are condensed, kicking off with an immersion week in April and wrapping up in mid-August, Ms. McGregor said.

The entrepreneurs' actual challenges are built into lesson plans and "workshopped" in class and course selection is customized to meet individual needs.

Online applications for the 2018 Next Founders program open in February.

Mr. Martin said the program was flexible enough that he was able to juggle his business demands with academic course requirements, although it wasn't easy.

"Opportunities come and go, and you just have to run with them." Taking a year off to pursue a more traditional executive MBA would have been out of the question.

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