Since its inception, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s Wings program has helped a diverse, eclectic range of entrepreneurs and innovators successfully launch their businesses. Run by a team experienced in helping startups take flight and drawing on experts in a range of fields, the program has taught participants how to recognize their strengths, focus on what it is they are really selling, and identifying their customers. The program welcomed its final cohort of fledgling startups this January 2023. These are their stories.

Stephen Straker is a man who has built a career out of learning to evolve. One of the last generations of floor traders at the Toronto Stock Exchange before it became wholly electronic, he moved into the brokerage houses, helping to develop a lot of the trading programs and algorithms that we now take for granted as part of the operations of the modern stock exchange. From there, he further delved into the world of technology and ultimately consulting where, he says, he tried to help fledgling companies “tell better stories and build better businesses.” When he had to learn how to evolve yet again, he depended on the Wings program to help him.

A mother and child looking at a laptop screen together
Next Knowledge helps a learner to master comprehension using their developed algorithm and methodology. Stock photo provided by Next Knowledge.

What he had expected to be a brief stretch in 2018, helping educator Lawrence Feld with a struggling company, turned into a partnership that that would ultimately metamorphosize into Next Knowledge in 2020. Although Feld’s previous firm had not done well, Straker could see the potential in adding advanced technology to Feld’s proven learning methods.

“We are trained to read and write,” he says. “But we are not trained to comprehend.”

This is precisely what Next Knowledge offers: the company helps a learner to master comprehension, by feeding a document into its web-based application called the WordSpace. Underneath the application is an engine that Feld and Straker refer to as ALICE (for Artificial Learning Intelligence and Comprehension Engine) that contains algorithms and heuristics, with which it scans the pieces, looking for informative words that it uses to predict the theme of the piece. The application doesn’t do all the work; rather, it guides a student through Next’s methodology, which teaches them how to comprehend a complicated article for themself.

It would be helpful, Straker says, “whether you are a learner with significant learning challenges, which is the background that Lawrence comes out of, or incredibly high performing. You can utilize our method to help you grasp the basic building blocks of learning.” Straker himself uses it on articles from The Economist, where he says the theme in a piece is not always straightforward.

But he knew he faced a challenge. “Building a business like this was something I had never done before,” he says. He knew what he needed: high-quality mentorship. After joining QPI’s Wings Accelerator program in spring-summer 2022 he was unable to complete the program (he was still “hustling too much,” with his consulting business, he says), so he joined the final cohort in January 2023.

“I was impressed by the quality of the attention and feedback that Andrew Jackson, Mike Laginski, Elza Seregelyi, and Rick Boswell provided us with, which was pulled out of a deep well of experience.” What they offered, he says was “not just critique, but advice."

As an example, he cites opening his email one morning. “I got a full page one Monday morning from Mike about something I said the previous Thursday. He’d sat down on Sunday afternoon and just dumped it into an email. Things like that I thought were fantastic.”

The program made him question some of the assumptions he had about the business.

“One of the things we were thinking about was an application to support our business on an iPhone or Android or whatever,” he says.

Working with Jackson and taking advantage of opportunities offered by the program he came to understand that while it might be a nice thing to have, it wasn’t as essential as he had felt. They would potentially be wasting time – and, more importantly, at this early stage of development, money – trying to get it off the ground.

“You get tunnel vision when you’re working on an idea,” he says, “and the program gave me a lens to look through.” Straker also praises his fellow students.

“The cohort was great. The participants seemed very receptive and very open to ideas with one another. We were all in a very different space,” he says referring to what other members of his cohort were working on – but we all had the same type of problems trying to get them from idea to reality.”

These days, Next Knowledge works out of the Seaway Co-working space in downtown Kingston, where QPI provides them with access to space and other resources via the Queen’s Startup Runway program. Their relationship with QPI has developed in other ways too, he says. “We’ve had conversations inside and outside the university and introductions to people who can help us, like Feiran Zhou at the Ontario Centre of Innovation (OCI) -- all through QPI. We’ve gotten good value out of our relationship there.”