The Knowledge Society looks to expose Ottawa teens to new tech, learning styles

Nadeem Nathoo (left) and Navid Nathoo, co-founders of The Knowledge Society.

Ottawa youth will soon have the chance to experiment with artificial intelligence, quantum computing, nanotechnology and more through a new local chapter of The Knowledge Society, a program founded in southern Ontario with support from the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Dubbed a “human accelerator,” TKS is a weekend program for students aged 13 to 17 interested in solving big problems through emerging technologies. After getting its start in Toronto and Waterloo, the program is expanding to Ottawa and select cities in the United States later this year.

The program was founded a few years ago by brothers Navid and Nadeem Nathoo, who sought to replicate the learning environments inside companies such as Google and Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator for young adults. Starting in September, TKS runs for three hours on the weekend over the course of nine months, but participants are expected to be pushing their learning further throughout the week.

“We wanted to completely rethink what the learning environment looks like,” Nadeem Nathoo tells Techopia. “How can we take people from being where they are to a dramatically different person who has the ability to change the world?”

Olympic-level students

The curriculum exposes curious students to emerging tools and platforms such as virtual reality, nanotech and biotech, which the co-founders believe hold the key to overcoming problems previous generations considered unsolvable. Nathoo notes that e-commerce was unimaginable before the advent of the internet, and smartphones have unlocked thousands of innovative solutions to wicked problems.

TKS brings in mentors from Google, Microsoft, Airbnb and other disruptive tech firms to guide the students through the ins and outs of these technologies. In the same way an Olympic-level swimmer hires a coach to perfect their technique, these mentors are meant to guide students to achieve their full intellectual potential.

Nathoo says the program isn’t looking for the kids with straight As, or even those who knew from day one they wanted to be a doctor. Instead, TKS seeks students with a high degree of intellectual curiosity, those who ask questions, show initiative and aren’t afraid of a program that prides itself on hard work and high expectations.

“If you want to be an Olympic-level athlete, there's not one day you're not in the pool, right?” Nathoo says, returning to the swimming metaphor. “Similarly, it's going to take a lot of work and if they still really want to do it, and they're committed because they want to have impact … this is the place you come.”

Students who have been through the initial cohorts of TKS are already making waves. Nathoo gives the example of one student who developed a ring capable of detecting blood glucose and cholesterol levels without penetrating the skin and another who’s becoming an influential figure in the VR space.

While the majority of participants’ time in the program is spent working with technology, the program also imparts the communication skills students will need to get their message to the world; several TKS alumni have given talks at major tech conferences in the U.S. such as C2 and Web Summit.

TKS alumna Zaynah Bhanji speaking onstage at C2.

Getting the feds’ attention

Nathoo says there are a few reasons why TKS chose Ottawa as one of its initial expansion points. First, the entrepreneurial activity in the National Capital Region has been steadily rising, he says, citing the presence of large tech firms such as Shopify and SurveyMonkey as testaments to Ottawa’s tech scene.

“We're starting to see a huge startup landscape build up in Ottawa, and I think it's being overshadowed a little bit,” Nathoo says, adding he thinks the energy from TKS’s Toronto program will carry over across the province.

The second reason is Ottawa’s other major employer: the federal government. With a program in the nation’s capital, Nathoo says TKS wants to give policymakers a direct look at what’s possible with a different education model.

The program’s aims of fostering students’ innate curiosity, exposing them to industry leaders and letting them experiment with new technology could give way to a new generation of entrepreneurs and problem-solvers, Nathoo says – TKS is already seeing promising results from its first few cohorts.

He draws on a biotech analogy to drive his point home.

“Much like a drug that's doing super well in early clinical trials, it's almost unethical to not implement that.”

Applications to join the TKS’s first cohort in Ottawa are open now.