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Published: 01/02/2024

Navigating AI Startups and VC Partnerships: Tech Excellence Podcast with Kseniya Shurak

Tech Excellence podcast with Kseniya Shurak

During her career as an entrepreneur, Kseniya Shurak, our guest on the Tech Excellence podcast, stood on both sides of the table. As the Chief Business Development Officer at Digimans AI, she aids in the development of the startup and works with partners in generative AI daily. As a VC fund representative, she’s assisting other startups to seal the deal and take flight. What can we learn from her journey?

Key takeaways

Incubation programs can make a great start

  • Kseniya’s journey highlights the value of engaging with incubation programs and VC funds from an early stage. Such interactions provide an environment for validating ideas, networking, and early funding opportunities.
  • For AI startups, forming strategic partnerships can accelerate technology development and market penetration. Focusing on crucial clients or partners who can offer significant mutual benefits is better than spreading resources too thin across many partnerships.

Importance of team and validation

  • Building a strong, cohesive team and continuously validating your business model and product with the market is critical for success. It includes testing assumptions quickly and adapting based on feedback.
  • Relying solely on VC funding can be risky, especially in a tight capital market. Entrepreneurs should explore alternative funding sources such as government grants, corporate programs, or strategic partnerships.

Navigating the VC-startup ecosystem

  • Experience on both the VC and startup sides can offer valuable perspectives but also requires adaptability. Understanding each side’s different paces and priorities can improve communication and alignment.

Emerging Trends in AI and Gaming

  • Integrating generative AI in gaming, particularly creating diverse and interactive non-playable characters (NPCs), represents a significant opportunity. Startups in this space need to stay ahead of trends and leverage AI for creative and cost-effective solutions.

Legal and Ethical Considerations in AI

  • As the AI sector grows, legal and ethical considerations will become increasingly important. Startups must navigate these carefully to ensure compliance and maintain public trust.

Advisory and Expertise

  • Having advisors or team members with direct industry experience can provide invaluable insights and help identify and solve the real needs of clients or customers effectively.

Persistence and Adaptability

  • The ability to persist through challenging times and the flexibility to pivot or adapt strategies is vital. The current economic downturn can be a fertile ground for startups willing to take risks and innovate.

Watch and listen

Transcript

Monika Dawidowicz: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Tech Excellence Podcast by DAC.digital, where we interview people from the tech world and try to find out what’s the secret to tech excellence and what are the journeys of different entrepreneurs and tech leaders in this very vivid environment. My today’s guest is Kseniya Shurak, a Chief Business Development Officer at Digimans AI. Hi, Kseniya. 

Kseniya Shurak: Hi. Hi, Monika. Nice to meet you today. 

Monika: Yeah, it’s great to see you again. Actually, the first time I met you was at some industry event, and you were a panelist in a panel discussion, actually consisting of VC fund representatives, because it’s also like a part of your professional journey. But then I realized you are also involved in the startup. So it’s quite interesting, and I think unique. Could you tell us something more about your background and what exactly is your role at Digimans AI? 

Kseniya: Sure. So once again, as you’ve mentioned, right now, I’m a Chief Business Development Officer at Digimans AI. And what I’m actually doing on a daily basis is mostly working with partners, with companies from our industry, also operating in generative AI, and also with the biggest ecosystem players in the scene. And also, I’m in charge of sales and creating deal flow for our company. 

But as you’ve mentioned, before, I had experience working at a VC, actually, there were several projects. I was working in Demium incubation program here locally in Poland, but I was also involved in several acceleration programs, where I was starting up programs, but also was helping in closing the deals. And I also have experience of being a co-founder of my own AI startup in gaming back in 2018. 

Monika: Okay, so it’s quite interesting and extensive, and you’re still a relatively young person. So congratulations on that. I think it’s super impressive that you’ve already managed to, you know, tap on so many different areas. So, were you first involved in the VC world or the startup world? What was the first step? 

Kseniya: Yeah, so actually, my first entry to the industry was from startups. You know, I was feeling that it’s time for me to learn more about it. I was always fascinated by, you know, big investment rounds of startups, and it all felt like some kind of a dreamy world. So I joined also Demium incubation program, but as a startup back in 2019 in Minsk. And there my journey began. So I was working on my own startup, I found my co-founders also in Demium. And I think that all of that started my journey into this world. But after that, I found myself that I want to join also VC, and I want to take a look how it works from the other side of the table. And since then, I fell in love. 

Monika: Okay, so I believe maybe some of our listeners don’t know what Demium is. Could you tell something more about that acceleration program and VC fund? 

Kseniya: Yeah, sure. So Demium is actually an incubation program. It used to be an incubation program for people who want to actually create their own startups. Usually, the idea was that a lot of people with different backgrounds from tech, marketing, and business were brought into one space to hackathons. During the weekend, they were working on their ideas. And after that, those teams which were selected by Demium were invited to join the incubation program. But during six months, people were reconnected and new teams were created. And those teams were starting from, like, literally zero with no idea till the time they already were attracting first investments. 

And Demium program really was changing a lot throughout the time because Demium was founded, I think, in 2013. And since then, it’s really evolved. And right now, it’s mostly a VC fund. But back then, when I was a participant, it was an incubation program. And it was really a great time for me to learn. 

Monika: So you recommend this kind of experience and joining some kind of incubation program if you want to get started in tech? 

Kseniya: Yes, I think so. Especially, you know, for those people who already probably have a lot of professional experience, it makes sense to join such types of programs. Why? Because there you can learn really a lot from industry experts, but you already have your own knowledge about, you know, either marketing or, like, tech. And it’s just easier to navigate this space. There are a lot of different types of programs nowadays, like Entrepreneur First, Antler. I think also, like, there were a lot of other venture studios that help people to create their startups. But I definitely would recommend it, especially if people are first-time founders. 

Monika: And I think it’s also a great opportunity for finding a co-founder and maybe your first team, yeah? Especially if, for example, you move to a new city and don’t know too many people around. I think that’s the key to get connected to as many like-minded individuals as possible. Do you agree with that? 

Kseniya: Yes, I definitely agree with that. And, you know, also, like, co-founders, finding the right co-founder is usually one of the biggest issues out there because it’s not that easy to find people both with experience, but also the ones who will match with your personal values and who will look into one direction, let’s say. And such types of programs really help to find people with whom you can connect and create startups. So that’s why definitely I can only agree on that. 

Monika: Okay. And maybe you could also tell something more about Digimans AI, because I really love the idea, but I wish we could explore more about what does the company do. 

Kseniya: Sure. So Digimans AI is an AI platform to generate diverse non-playable characters in games. And for those of you who are not familiar with the gaming world, non-playable characters are those characters which are, you know, like secondary characters in games. But a lot of times, we see that they’re really very repetitive and not very diverse, and those players who are playing the game sometimes cannot even communicate with NPCs. So what we are bringing to the table: we’re creating diversity of non-playable characters by different types, meaning we can generate different communities from different countries. We can also generate a lot of different looks by generating clothes. And we also generate personalities for NPCs, which allows for those non-playable characters to be really interactive. And we have released our demo with Conway, who is our partner, several months ago. So basically, together, we want to make non-playable characters as interactive as possible. 

Monika: Okay, so it seems like a great addition and it simplifies the process for the game-developing companies. They can free some of their resources to focus on, like, the key components of the video game and you do the rest if it comes to those NPCs. 

Kseniya: Yeah, exactly. So that was the main idea that we want to have game studios to generate more content faster. And different types of studios, they need different types of models, different quality, but either we can be used for the final production or we can be used, our platform can be used at the stages where companies are making tests because here it’s all about testing ideas, and we just want to help studios to test as many ideas as possible so they do not spend much time on something which later on, you know, they will just throw to the bin because maybe they see that the content they created is not suitable for their game. 

Monika: And you mentioned some strategic partnership there. So you’re currently working on something big with a partner. So maybe, you know, based on your experience in the VC world and different incubation programs, etc. You know, like, what’s actually the role of strategic partnerships and how to approach it? Is it, like, more important to focus on securing one partner at the beginning, or maybe finding different partners? Like, what’s your approach here? 

Kseniya: It’s really, I think, a very complicated topic, especially for early stage startups, because they want to cover from one point of view, you know, as many clients, as many partners as possible. But then you meet a point when there is a lack of resources, probably. So I would suggest, or like, that’s just our, like, that is how we are doing it here in Digimans AI, is that we try for sure to secure partnerships with a lot of different companies who can help us in terms of technology. And we are here, we’re thinking about it as a strategic partnership. Because right now in generative AI, you either, you know, create your own LLMs, or you use already existing technologies. And here, we really want to develop our technology in the fastest way possible. That’s why we make partnerships with those companies where we feel we can have synergy, and they can help us develop our technology, and we can help them also in a way to, for example, attract more studios, or more B2C users, meaning gamers to that platform. But also… so from one point of view, we’re really trying to search for such technological partners. But from another point of view, for sure, we are also negotiating with some of the companies bigger, let’s say strategic partnerships as well. But these are more, like, partnerships, clients side. And here, what I think is very important, especially for early-stage startups, is to have focus. 

 

That’s why in our case, we’re really focusing on key clients, and like helping them to deliver the content they would like, you know, to implement into their games. And for us, it’s really very important to be focused on them. And once we have success with them and more resources in terms of investments or in terms like sales, we can scale up. But at this early stage, it’s really very important, you know, to be focused for us. 

Monika: Yeah. And I believe probably your previous experience in all of those programs, and also from the VC side helped you to shape that kind of approach. 

Kseniya: Yes, definitely. It helps. But sometimes, you know, jumping back and forth from startup to VC world, and then from VC world to startup, I tend to forget some things, you know, and it’s sometimes really hard to adapt because VCs have one pace of work and maybe other KPIs rather than startups do. And it’s all the time, you know, starting almost from scratch, but for sure, experience helps. 

Monika:Yeah. Understanding those both sides, probably, it can be helpful and challenging at the same time. Yeah. So are there any other specific challenges, except for what you’ve mentioned, like jumping from one to another, that come with, like, having experience in both sides? Are there any, I don’t know, like black sides of being in the both worlds? 

Kseniya: I think definitely yes, because once, you know, I was in startup world, I think I had a chance to get this taste of how things should be done, and then also to make this retrospective what went wrong. And once I joined a VC, from one point of view, that was, for sure, like, advantage to right now being able to help more founders understand their needs. But there is some point, and it’s more like connected with personality, like my personality, that I became too empathic, you know, to people and empathy is for sure a very good thing. But when you’re working in such type of an incubation, it also can become a point of distraction sometimes because you really want to help people. But you also need to be, like, very focused and clear, and honest with entrepreneurs. And sometimes it might be hard, you know, to be that voice that no matter what will tell the truth to entrepreneurs. And sometimes truth is harsh. So I guess it was a little bit hard to navigate at the very beginning of my professional experience in Demium, you know, to be able to say no a lot of times. And… 

Monika: Especially that, you know, that being said no to you is the hardest thing as well. 

Kseniya: Yes, that was the hardest thing because, you know, I knew how it can feel. And I understand how many difficult situations it may cause later on for entrepreneurs. And that it definitely upsets them a lot. And constantly hearing no sometimes can really be harsh. 

Monika: And have you heard no many times as an entrepreneur, as a startup? 

Kseniya: A lot of times. You know, for me, that was like, no, no, no, no, no. And then yes. And once you hear yes, I mean, from VCs, that’s the point when you think, okay, finally, finally, we did it. And we had two investors back then when I was working in our startup. And for sure, it just confirmed for us that we’re doing the right thing. You just need to find your ideal investor for you, you know, the one who understands what you’re doing, they understand also in which direction to go. And they will help startups on their journey. 

Monika: I’ve heard an interesting idea the other day, that when you begin something, especially if it’s a new company, or, like, a completely new idea, you should start collecting the no’s. Yeah, so your first 100 no’s should be your success because that’s the learning curve. That’s a learning experience. And, you know, the first yes will always come at some point unless it’s like a really crappy idea. But usually, if you’re so invested, it’s not a crappy idea. It’s actually a legit one. 

Kseniya: Yeah. 

Monika: So yeah, so I’ve heard about this concept of collecting the no’s. And actually, it can be quite uplifting. At least maybe I haven’t secured any yes, but at least I had like 50 no’s. So, at least I tried 50 times. So that could be, like, an interesting experiment. 

Kseniya: Yeah, just to add to that, I think it’s all about going out there and trying your best to do what you want to do. And at the end of the day, if nothing, let’s say great is coming out of it, it’s okay. Yeah, but at least you tried and you know that you made a maximum effort towards your goals. 

Monika:Yeah, and I think with that thought, we’re smoothly heading to the other point that we planned about, like, what kind of your experience could you share with the other, you know, people involved in startups? What are the lessons learned and important things that you could recommend to people, especially within the AI space or maybe the, you know, game development space? Are there any things that you would like to share as an advice, or maybe some kind of things that you’ve learned or mistakes that you’ve made and other people could avoid? 

Kseniya: Yeah, I think that I will try to go first from startups and then jump into like the gaming field in particular. But if I speak about early-stage startups, I think that, especially for those people who are only starting their journey in startups, it’s really very important to understand this concept of testing ideas, making the validation. Because this is something I think a lot of people, especially founders sometimes forget, because they’re so excited about their ideas. So for me, this is, like, the number one thing which is important to do, like, to test assumptions as fast as possible. Sometimes it’s really hard to do and we tend to forget that it’s important, but for me, this is the number one goal. 

And then also, I think what is really very important and what I’ve learned is the power of the team. So for me, it’s about making long-lasting relationships, you know, like nurturing them inside the team, also setting up the rules at the very beginning of how you want to navigate, maybe, you know, writing down what every person should do in a startup, how are they going to solve the conflicts. Because when you start, it’s for sure everything is like very, maybe looking very promising, but then, you know, hard times come and you need to navigate this field. So definitely, this is very important also for me as an advice. 

And additionally, I would say that if we’re speaking about early-stage startups, or like any kind of a company, it’s very important to be able to secure investments. Because sometimes, not sometimes, most of the times startups fail because of lack of investments. And here, I think founders need to be very proactive in terms of finding different, you know, ideas where money should come from. Not all the time, VC is the only solution to that, especially we know right now, it’s really very hard times for founders. You know, the market has been declining for more than a year now. And we are in an awful situation, actually, because less and less investments are there available for founders. So there might be some programs of corporations that sometimes finance startups. Also, there are a lot of governmental grants, you know, out there. So founders need to be really creative in terms of financing their idea and making it come true. 

And if I’m speaking about the gaming market, gaming market, I think right now is evolving and having only, you know, best times ahead. And I think that what is important here for companies is, again, be able to secure for sure investments, but also be able to solve, like, the real need of gaming studios. And I would speak just from a perspective of a tool for gamers. So we see that it’s really very important to be able to show results to game studios fast. So if that’s possible from a startup, it for sure would be, like, only benefit to company out there in the gaming world. But also, I think what is important is also to have someone from the market of games out there in a team, because it’s really important to have that expertise on board. In our case, we were lucky to have a lot of advisors from top-notch gaming studios on board, and they helped us to navigate the field. And we’re feeling really, you know, very sure about what we’re doing and in which direction we’re going. 

Monika: Yeah, because they know exactly what are the pain points of the studios. Yeah. Yes. So they know there are, like, certain burning problems. And, you know, they know that, for example, there are no solutions to that or few solutions that are faulty. So, yeah, actually, that sounds like a pretty solid advice to have some kind of advisors or maybe somebody in your team from the field that you are marketing your product towards. Do you remember any memorable, you know, success stories from, like, your professional background, maybe of the companies that you co-participated in, or maybe the ones from the incubation programs, anything that was really, you know, flashy and successful, or maybe something that, you know, at the beginning didn’t really seem like will be a success, but then somehow they got that yes from somebody? 

Kseniya: Yeah, I think that taking a look at my career, I can identify these success stories almost at every working place. And I think that most of my, let’s say, success stories started when I actually joined more, like, VC industry. And there I was in charge of a big, actually, event with more than 7000 attendees. And my responsibilities were mostly connected with experiences for startups. So we were able to attract 200 startups and 80 startups for, like, the pitching contest. But what I think was a success is that after this event, around 10 startups got investments for $2.5 million. And, you know, for me, it’s really very good conversion after the event because we know how the events are going and not all of the time really deals are made there. But it was like really great success stories because a lot of startups really got investments after the conference. 

I think that also another success of mine and our team of Demium was making a successful relaunch. Because we were starting a year ago, without, two years ago, actually, without anyone knowing what Demium is here, like in Poland. And it was really a challenge for us, you know, to make the relaunch, together with Karolina and Adam. We were doing that for several months. And I think after half of a year of our operations, we were able to secure for us the pipeline for the VC fund. And we were also able to make Demium known here on the market and also in CE region. Because after we were in Ukraine, there were also, like, equal location happening, and we have opened a hub in Prague. So, you know, it was for us definitely a big success. 

And actually, Digimans AI was also a startup with money coming from Demium because Anna and Michał, they were participating in the program. And I was working with the team on a daily basis. And after five months, they were able to secure investments. So for me, this is also a success. When, let’s say from no idea to the investment, only five months passed, I think it’s really a fast track to get to the early stage investments. Yeah. 

Monika: Yeah, very fast success, quick success, and a promising one. And the thing that she mentioned about the startups pitching at the event and, you know, 10 of them securing huge investment, it pretty much proves the point that you mentioned before to find opportunities to go out there, to take up space. And then, you know, good things will happen. So I also originally come from the event space. And I see that, you know, some of the founders, even after the first rounds of investment, they still keep showing up. And they’re hungry for more and they’re looking for new and new more opportunities to either find investment or first clients or strategic partnerships. So that’s definitely something extremely important to just go out there and make yourself visible in, let’s say, startup investment space. 

Kseniya: Yes, definitely. I think that this is a job of founders to be as proactive as possible. And both in presenting your startup to the outer world and as well, working internally on the products you’re having inside the team. So for me, if I see that founders are really, you know, hardworking, they like what they do, but they are also oriented towards, like, the result, I definitely would like to speak to those founders, because they all the time have this passion inside of them, this energy, which at the end of the day is driving all these changes which we have in the world. 

Monika: Okay. And maybe before we wrap up, are there any interesting emerging trends and opportunities if it comes to AI, generative AI that you’ve observed and are worth mentioning to those who are interested in exploring this space, but maybe that they don’t know too much about it just yet? 

Kseniya: Yeah, sure. So I think that we are at very interesting times right now, even though AI is already out there with this hype in the market even from 2019. I think only this year it was said so out loud that everyone is speaking about it. As you’ve mentioned, I’m coming from generative AI field and specifically from the generation of content and generation of 3D content. So I would mostly speak about this field and about the gaming world. So I definitely think that there are a lot of great changes coming in there. I perceive them as great changes. 

For sure, the generation of content is going to be much, much faster, and it will allow to test more ideas and to lower down the costs of testing ideas and of the production at the end of the day, which is a great opportunity for AAA studios who are having big budgets and let’s say, not big budget, but who are having high costs and they want to save the budgets. But it also will be a great idea and a great idea to utilize this technology for those early-stage gaming developer companies, for example, like, Indie Studios, who want to actually create more content and who want to have maybe people in their games because, before that, they were not able to do that because it was so costly. But right now, they have this opportunity to jump into this field. 

Additionally, we’re always speaking about it in our team that there will be more jobs when people will actually learn AI, teach AI, sorry. They will teach AI and they will help companies actually to set up their AI systems and we are thinking that in terms of games, probably there will be AI 3D artists out there, and we can see that the biggest studios like Ubisoft, also other players on the market, they already have those directions of AI and they are hiring right now people who can work with AI, but who also know, for example, 3D or level design. 

Also, I think that there will be a lot of changes in terms of legal side of AI because right now, legal security is very unclear. So I think that there will be a lot of new limitations introduced, and people will be really very cautious about utilizing it and which content they actually generate with AI. 

Monika: Okay, it’s interesting what you said and probably a topic for a separate conversation, especially that security part. Yeah, so we covered so many different and really interesting things during just one conversation. Is there any last thought that you would like to share with people watching us, maybe with entrepreneurs first?

Kseniya: Yeah, sure. So as for me, I really would like to say that if you are thinking about making a startup and entering this field, that is really maybe a hard time right now to enter the field. But if you do that and if you are able to show the traction and have a solid idea, you’re definitely going to be having a lot of success in several years, because those entrepreneurs who are going to survive now, they’re going to have tremendous success later on when the market will be back to the volume it was even two years ago and there will be so many VCs willing to invest in startups again. 

Monika: Okay, so there’s hope and it makes sense to persist right now and go through the hard times because your prediction is that, you know, they might be very successful later on. 

Kseniya: Yes, yes. That’s actually something that a lot of experts on the market are saying that for sure it’s a very hard time and you need to be really, like, bold and, you know, willing to take this risk. But if founders are able to validate their idea and to make a startup that’s going to have the first traction, first sales coming in and they will be able to survive then in the future, they will have a really lot of success. And it’s time, you know, to be working on really new ideas, changing industries, maybe in disruptive way, even though I don’t like disruptive because sometimes it’s very cliche, you know. But it really is like this because right now we are in a big crisis, and usually companies that are like unicorns, they were created in those types of crises. 

Monika: Yeah, because they were addressing some very specific problems, and that helps them to focus and that helps them to be resourceful. Okay, sounds like a great message and I think it doesn’t even only apply to the early-stage startups, but to company at any level that if you make it through the crisis, if you make it through the hard times, maybe if you’re resourceful and creative right now and think about the disruption and a little revolution, then, you know, it is very likely that later on once the economy gets back to quote-unquote normal, then you might be very successful. 

Okay, so thank you very much for today’s conversation, and thanks to all the listeners for staying with us today. Make sure to follow us on YouTube and Spotify because every week, we’re dropping another episode with another guest from the tech space. Thank you once again, Kseniya, it was great to see you again and speak to you again, and let’s stay in touch. 

Kseniya: Thank you, Monika, very much. It was really great to see you as well and let’s stay in touch.