U of T startup BlueKey AI is on a mission to reduce drop-out rates and help undergraduate students succeed using its machine learning platform.
We sat down with the startup’s founder, U of T alumnus Peter Han (BA ’14) to learn about his entrepreneurial journey and how he leveraged support from the U of T Entrepreneurship community to get his idea off the ground.
Q: How did you get the idea to create BlueKey AI?
A: “I migrated to Canada with my family in my teens and enrolled at one of the most coveted schools here – U of T, for my bachelor degree in applied statistics. I realized early on the rising importance of machine learning and statistical models and its applications in shaping the future.
During my time at U of T, I observed students, and especially international ones, facing considerable challenges with exams and meeting program requirements. Many would mention that high school did not prepare them for the style of learning and regulations present at the university level. Further, I observed that navigating through the various combinations of course selections, not receiving the one-on-one support that they were used to due to large class sizes and finding it difficult to access academic councillors, they were feeling overwhelmed, flustered and in many cases would panic and just drop out. I realized the magnitude of the problem when I came across the statistics that 1/6 first year university students would not make the grade and about 16% of first year students would drop out of university. This bothered me and stayed with me.
That was in 2009. Today, the student dropout rate has climbed to 31% in Canada and nearly 50% in the US. The societal consequences of this are huge. It is leading to problems of high student debts, personal insolvencies, increases in anxiety & depression and substance abuse. This needn’t be so. I firmly believe that if the right kind of support and assistance is readily available to students, especially during their initial years, they are more likely to graduate and not deviate from their academic and career dreams.
Reflecting on my personal undergrad experiences and the insights I gathered while working with thousands of students after graduating, I decided to start Bluekey AI with the mission to provide undergrad students with appropriate academic support. It is our vision that every student completes their chosen academic journey successfully, while reducing or eliminating dropout rates completely.”
Q: What support did you receive from U of T’s entrepreneurship community to help launch your startup?
A: “The atmosphere and industry connections available at U of T were perfect for students like me to test and push boundaries in innovation and entrepreneurship. We were regularly invited to participate in competitions and attend seminars.
In late 2013, one such opportunity came up and me and my fellow undergraduate team at UTEE, represented to U of T to participate in RBC Next Great Innovator Challenge. We got an opportunity to work closely and learn from the Faculty of Arts and Science’s Centre for Entrepreneurship’s (formerly the Impact Centre), Professor Cynthia Goh and her team, in formulating our proposal, finalizing our concept and in preparing for the final presentation.
As undergrad students, experience and learnings were memorable, especially the mentoring from Centre for Entrepreneurship. We made it as finalist and presented our business proposal of using Big Data to the RBC executives, including the COO JF Courville and CTO Bruce Ross. We were thrilled to win the 3rd place in the national competition, and ecstatic when RBC purchased our IP and applied it to their commercial banking division.”
Q: How did your academic background in statistical science prepare you to build BlueKey AI?
A: “My educational background at UofT in Applied Statistics enabled me to understand the building blocks of large data sets. It also made it easier to understand cross platform usage of machine learning models in sectors such as computer science and finance.
As I started developing Bluekey AI, it became quite clear that the platform we were building would depend heavily on ML models. This is due to each university having their own grading methodology and regulations. Our recommendation systems must continuously scrape data to provide the vital instantaneous assistance students require. My education in applied statistics and the strong foundation that it gave me, helps me when discussing technical aspects with development team as well as being able to assist them in troubleshooting machine learning algorithms.”
Q: What is the value proposition of BlueKey AI? Tell us why more students should use your product.
A: “Bluekey AI is focused on providing customized support to help undergrad students achieve their academic and career goals. It is designed to be an easy-to-navigate holistic platform with multiple dynamic tools and resources that can be used from enrolment till graduation.
A key feature of our product is its ability to utilize machine learning to flag students who are struggling early on, especially in their first year, and provide them with ongoing custom recommendations to improve grades and reduce drop out rates.
We also intend to integrate coop, internship and career matching resources to become the go-to platform for all undergraduate students.”
Q: How will BlueKey’s platform support new students as they begin the academic school year?
A: “Within minutes, a first-year student will be able to create their profile that starts to generate course recommendations and grade information. They will immediately know where they stand, and what is required of them to successfully graduate.
The learning resources section will act as a self-service tool that will allows students to have instant access to more useful features such as ‘’Free E-notes’’, ‘’Find my E-books’’, ‘’Test prep’’, and later ‘’Career Assessment’’ and ‘’Continuing Education’’. It will be an all in one platform – quick, customized, smart and efficient.”
Q: Do you have any tips for students/alumni looking to launch their own startups?
A: “Entrepreneurs are always looking to solve problems that effect society, big or small, driving job creation and creating economic benefits for all of us. While, launching a startup is a great feeling, the low ratio of startup success is indicative of the challenging road that lays ahead for continuing students.
Reflecting on my journey and learning from others, I would recommend focusing on education first, gaining a few years of related work experience before starting your own business. As Nelson Mandela said: Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.”
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