It’s up to us to discover our own source of joy, and then it is important that we devote time and energy to it.
Vlad Marincaș is Co-Founder, CEO & Data Scientist at Aqurate.ai – the start-up that builds AI-driven eCommerce tools. Vlad studied Economics and Finance at several universities in Germany, where he taught various mathematics-based subjects, and worked in research for three years. He also worked at the European Central Bank, focusing on Macroprudential Policies and Financial Stability, fields related to his PhD thesis.
Keep reading for his take on how AI serves eCommerce, what AI tool has the most impact on end consumers, what AI can do and what it should not do, what data teaches a data scientist about people, how to deal with unpredictability, why you must always be learning, how Vlad recognizes the right thing to do, and so much more!
My joy, my sense of wonder, come from understanding how things work. From this joy comes the patience I approach complex issues with.
What gives you a sense of wonder?
My love of knowledge. Since childhood, I have always wondered and wanted to know how things work. I think this is nature, but also nurture - I think it’s also about the education I received, where I have always been encouraged to ask questions. This way of being has also brought me to where I am now. My entire career, everything I do today, the choices I make – it all starts with the question: How does this work?
My joy, my sense of wonder, come from understanding how things work. From this joy comes the patience I approach complex issues with - in college, for example, I would study for8-10 hours straight, out of my pure passion to understand. This passion supported my professional path in the technical field. It’s up to us to discover our own source of joy, and then it is important that we devote time and energy to it, as it will bring us great satisfaction - both personally and professionally.
The intellectual challenge of the work I do is what drives me.
What drives you? What gets you moving, inspires you, makes you perform?
The intellectual challenge of the work I do is what drives me. I think this has always been the driver for me, and, as I evolved and progressed in my career, the presence or absence of this driver became an indicator: if it's missing, then I know I will not feel good in that position and I will be looking to redefine it.
As a child, I played performance chess – where everything is deterministic and things are quite simple, although it’s a complex sport. In the work I do now, though, everything is stochastic, you find yourself in constant readjustment. Every information and discussion with an investor, a partner or a client is a new point of observation, based on which you make your decisions and readjust your expectations. The complexity of the projects and the teamwork - because you can't navigate such complexity alone - are very challenging and rewarding.
Life comes with a lot of uncertainty. And then what we do is we try to identify patterns – which is what the AI models that we train do.
What was it like – the transition from the determinism of chess to the unpredictability that followed?
Life is a great teacher. You see life differently,every time you move on to the next stage. In high school you form certain perceptions about life, they change when you get to college, and they change again when you start working, and so on. The fact that your perceptions change, that they are always contradicted or added to, makes you realize that life comes with a lot of uncertainty. And then what we do is we try to identify patterns – which is what the AI models that we train do.
We need to accept that there are things we can change and things we cannot and develop our ability to tell the difference between them.
But there are positive things about unpredictability - everything fun and beautiful in life has a little unpredictability at its core. If we knew everything in advance, nothing would surprise us, there would be no more curiosity, and we would miss many interesting things.
The challenge is to realize to what extent the data we have and the patterns we have observed apply now, in the present.
What can data/AI do, what can it not do?
What AI does is identify patterns in the data and it builds based on these patterns. The trap we must guard against is not to abstract everything away and end up thinking strictly statistically. Patterns exist and happen on average and under certain circumstances, and we need to understand if we are the rule or the exception. We must determine to what extent the data we have is telling us something about the average, about something general. And the challenge, in terms of making data-driven decisions, is to realize to what extent the data we have and the patterns we have observed apply now, in the present.
We tend to see AI as a black box that solves everything, but it's not. AI has its own limitations – for instance AI models are limited by the lack of data or the lack of patterns in the data it has. We imagine that AI learns because it receives information, just like humans do, but it doesn't. An AI model can only perform if there are patterns in the data and if reality is correctly translated into data that AI can understand.
AI models cannot replace all human complexity. Humans cannot be completely reduced to data.
What has data taught you about people?
AI models are limited to the information they receive. Automation, AI take over the repetitive or boring parts, which makes AI a tool that can be used for many purposes, such as e-commerce, for example.
But AI models cannot replace all human complexity. Humans cannot be completely reduced to data.
The power to iterate is critical.
How is Aqurate making a difference?
Aqurate operates in e-commerce and it makes all the difference for shops, whenever they want to take a holistic approach and navigate through complex data in order to make better decisions – in terms of traffic, how they sell, etc. Aqurate provides the shops with the layer through which the data can be extracted, thus producing information that can be understood and is actionable, leading to better decisions. Also, Aqurate provides AI tools that also make automated decisions - in terms of personalization, for instance.
We make a difference by what we build together, day in and day out. I believe in the solutions we are always developing and improving. Our perseverance and our ability to adapt help us find the best path forward.
The power to iterate is critical in this process. We can make the best decisions based on the data we have up to a certain point, after which we must adapt to the new information.
What was the spark that started your business?
When it started, this business was a natural next step for me, at that time. I had been studying abroad - I went abroad in 2010, right after the financial crisis (which, by the way, made me ask many questions about how things work). After my college and my master’s degree, I went into research. Which was interesting, great complexity, I was going to conferences, but I realized it wasn't quite what I wanted. I think I had a rather romantic view of research – it seemed interesting to research and show how something works or what impact it has - but the politics of publication simply did not win me over.
And then, data science started gaining a lot of ground– my colleagues and I were reading a lot about it. That’s when we realized that everything we were doing in terms of research — working with data, writing code, mathematical modelling, everything to do with AI, basically — was very similar to what we were already doing. So, we decided to give it a try.
Also, everything was aligning: I wanted to come back to Romania, I had applied to Diaspora Start-Up and received the investment. This was a new, attractive, interesting industry, I had the support and a great team,so I thought: If you must fail, this is the perfect time to do so.
Aqurate is a one-stop-shop for eCommerce. We will grow a lot, very quickly.
What is different and unique about your product?
Aqurate is a one-stop-shop for e-commerce. We create an ecosystem made of two parts: data extraction ¢ralization and Aqurate tools.
The first part is challenging to address, because of how dynamic the industry is and how quickly things are changing - as new data and multiple new tools come out all the time. To solve this problem, we have built a suite of connectors, which we use to extract the data from the tools the shops use, to reach a single point of truth: we centralize the most relevant data, which gives us a solid foundation to build on.
The second part is the tools we offer, by building on the consolidated data: Aqurate Insights (advanced analytics module), Aqurate Recommendations (personalization module) and Aqurate Segmentation (behavioral segmentation module). We will also implement a Traffic Tracker – which wewill use to extract the data from the website and improve what we know in terms of data. We test the hypotheses, see what is relevant for the market and build according to its needs.
As the platform grows and we get more data, we will develop new, very interesting tools - especially now, that Growceanu has provided us with the funds we need to grow. We will grow a lot, very quickly.
Given how data complexity and data use has grown in recent years, we know the evolution will be exponential in the future and we are ready for it.
The AI model will quickly tell you what is relevant for you.
How does Aqurate serve the shops?
Each tool helps in a different way. The stores, use Aqurate Insights to receive proactive notifications informing them about potential business opportunities and risks. Through Aqurate Recommendations, online store customers receive personalized product suggestions. Based on Aqurate Segmentation, the shops can improve their communication with customers, thus increasing their loyalty.
Greater financing possibilities also lead to an increase in the number of start-ups.
Which of these has more impact on the end consumer?
Personalization – the AI model will quickly tell you what is relevant for you. You save time, and you don't miss relevant products. Also, the model makes recommendations based not only on your preferences, but also based on other users ‘market behavior – which makes itall the more efficient and interesting.
How do you see the start-up ecosystem in Romania?
We have been a part of this ecosystem since 2019, and it has developed a lot. Had we tried to do this thing let’s say…10 years ago,even though the models and the technology were there, we wouldn't have succeeded, because the market wasn't there yet.
Today, there’s a lot of money coming from investments- many foreign funds are active, some Romanian funds as well, there are also angel investor networks and crowdfunding platforms. Greater financing possibilities also lead to an increase in the number of start-ups. Resources are available, and there is a lot of willingness from all actors in the ecosystem - many events are organized for different stages in a start-up life (idea, MVP, traction), there are accelerators, NGOs, there is a lot of entrepreneurship communication in universities. But there is need for public involvement, as well.
One of the most valuable things Growceanu offers is expertise diversity.
How do you see Growceanu’s role in this ecosystem?
Growceanu has an important role, both at local andnational level. We have known them for some time, because we worked closely with Adrian Erimescu - the recommendation model for immobiliare.ro has been developed by Aqurate. Our collaboration has always been very good, we stayed in contact with Adrian and, over time, we came into contact with several investors from the Growceanu team, such as Ciprian Man, Radu Ticiu, Dan Bugariu. Being supported by people who have known us for a while, who know our professionalism and our passion for what we do, and know that we deliver what we promise, has been very helpful. I think it is very important to have such support at the beginning of the journey.
One of the most valuable things Growceanu offers is expertise diversity. Growceanu investors come from very different backgrounds, and they have a lot to share about the smartest way of building a product, the smartest approach to entering a particular market etc. This is extremely helpful.
In terms of seeking financing, I very much appreciated the pitch part and the post-pitch evaluation report Growceanu offered- I haven't seen this anywhere else and it's a very useful tool. You find out right away, in the early stages, what the good and the bad is, and you can also see a list of people who are interested in your start-up. It is a very big advantage.
How do you recognize the right thing to do?
I set my objectives, I sort out my priorities, and I determine the ratio between the necessary resources and the level of impact. I decide according to the circumstances at the time - according to relevance, time, availability, but also in terms of what give me joy - actually,this also plays an important role in how we divide our tasks in our team. We are bound by our fundamental values - starting with integrity, honesty, and the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.
I am always learning.
What are you still learning?
I am always learning. At the beginning we were learning to what extent what we knew and learned was practical and can be used by companies. Then I started learning a lot about sales – what to say, what points to cover, what to look out for. Then we moved on to raise the investment round – VC, angel network, crowdfunding, which type of investor is interesting for which aspect, depending on the country. We also learn a lot from each other, always. New technologies, new markets,new products come out all the time - whether we like it or not, we must learn all the time. (Smiles).
The dream is to become a global company.
What are your hopes and dreams for Aqurate? What does the future look like now?
The dream is to become a global company. To develop the tools of the future, to grow and help as many shops as possible. To become for e-commerce what HubSpot is for sales and marketing.
I think we find ourselves at an excellent point, where we are already being adopted on the Romanian market, even though we only launched a few months ago - which is wonderful.
Now, we are focusing on international growth, and the resources provided by the round money we have raised are very useful to this end. We already have a well-developed external go-to-market strategy, which we will execute on very soon. To make that happen, we’ll need to grow our team - so Aqurate is hiring! Go to our website and follow us on our social media to find out more!