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Not long after Rima Al Shikh chose Halifax as her new home in Canada, she learned of the city’s startup hub Volta and hoped it could help her build the business she was planning.

A native of Syria who had spent 12 years in Dubai, Al Shikh is a specialist in artificial intelligence, or AI, and she and her partner had come to Canada to start a new life, and maybe try her hand at launching a company.

“Canada is a great place for same sex couples to build a family,” she said in an interview. “We believe it’s a forward-thinking country and it offers the whole artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure to build a company.”

Soon after arriving in Canada, she landed a job as an AI consultant and got the opportunity to travel the country and see a range of cities that might become home. She and her partner liked Halifax and its proximity to the ocean.

“We’re both scuba divers so we said, ‘Why not?’”

The job as a consultant also showed her a huge problem in the tech space, and she believed she could solve the problem through a startup. So, she got in touch with the team at Volta, the startup hub that occupies the first three floors of the Maritime Centre on Barrington Street.

Launched in 2013, Volta has been the vortex of Halifax’s tech and entrepreneurship scene for almost a decade. It began as a community “startup house” above a mattress shop on Spring Garden Road and grew over time to become the largest innovation hub east of Montreal. The most notable part of the facility is the physical space – three stories of downtown office space where startups and their supporters can gather, work and network. It can accommodate individuals in a common working area or a scaling company that needs its own office.

But Volta is also known for its programs, which are tailored to provide high-growth companies with the money and mentorship they need to get a start. The Volta Academy offers flexible intake and hours, and brings founders the resources and connections they need depending on their business and stage of development.

“Rather than shoving a company into a program, the reality is that our community doesn’t have the density that can offer a lot of companies [one program] at the same time,” said Volta CEO Martha Casey. “So, what we’re doing is being more flexible and allowing founders to work with mentors one-on-one.”

When Al Shikh entered the Volta orbit, she had years of expertise in AI and a vision of a company, and the Volta team helped her shape it into a business.

The result is Begin AI, whose mission is to reduce the costs of personalizing software so that more digital solutions understand the preferences and habits of people and automatically adopt to their desires. The company recently received investment from Sandpiper Ventures and is working with a few early adopters on the initial product.

“I was really impressed by the activity – it had that energy and the vibe,” said Al Shikh remembering her early days at Volta. “You can see there are people who are very focused on what they’re doing.”

Due to the pandemic, Al Shikh has been working from home, but she continues to work with Volta mentors. One area they are examining is tapping federal programs to help staff members or potential hires immigrate to Canada.

Another AI company that has used Volta’s programs is KorrAI, a two-year-old venture that has just been accepted into Y Combinator, which is recognized as the world’s best tech accelerator. The company has developed a platform to help mining companies and others sort through satellite images and other data so they can take minerals from the ground to market by the most sustainable means possible.

KorrAI competed in the Volta Cohort pitching competition in May 2020, which takes place twice a year and awards winners up to $25,000 in investment. KorrAI was one of five winners of the event, which meant it also received access to Volta programs and mentors.

Co-Founder and CEO Rahul Anand said a huge benefit of working with the Volta team is that it led to introductions to other support organizations, such as the National Research Council’s IRAP program.

He said working with Volta “helped a lot with introductions within the ecosystem. There’s a huge role for non-dilutive funding to play in the growth of a company, so such introductions are essential.”

He added that being in Volta helped his team to network with other founders and startups, which is important as peer-to-peer learning is so essential when growing a business.

“It really put us on the map," said Anand.