Sergey Tokarev, Founding Partner at Roosh: “I let my curiosity guide me”

In 2021, the Ukrainian tech industry was full of significant accomplishments: booming talent pool market, new rounds of investments, Gitlab’s IPO & Grammarly became decacorn, new tech universities & schools, venture funds, the first Ukrainian Pavillion at Web Summit, variety offline events on tech topics, and much more!

We asked Sergey Tokarev, Founding Partner at Roosh, IT entrepreneur and investor (founded over 30 businesses around the world and invested in over a hundred IT projects), about his initiatives that shook the Ukrainian tech scene in 2021: SET University, Pawa, AI HOUSE, Roosh Ventures, STEM is FEM.

TechUkraine: Reface, Roosh, and SET University are just a few projects of your recent blast activity in Ukraine. Tell our readers why you invest in Ukrainian tech and what you think about the local ecosystem?

Sergey Tokarev: When it comes to technology, Ukraine has great potential. The difference is that this potential started to develop much later than in the UK, Germany, and the US. We compensate for this with the pace of development. Within 30 years, Ukraine has leaped from the complete absence of technology to its first unicorn.

Our people are what is driving us, and it is the first and the key factor that has motivated me to invest in Ukrainian tech and build a local ecosystem for many years. My global goal is to make Ukraine a recognized technological center of Europe and the world.

To do this, we need to change the mindset of the local IT industry: to switch it from outsource-focused thinking to product thinking. We need to stop exporting our workforce and start exporting products instead. 

We also need to stimulate the market:

  • Invest in Ukrainian products
  • Promote our technologies on the world market
  • Attract investments from the best foreign funds
  • Raise unicorns

Every successful case will make the market deeper and strengthen Ukraine’s position.

As for the ecosystem, there has never been one actually. There were some attempts to create infrastructure around some companies. Today, the IT industry understands that this is not enough. The IT business is starting to interact with each other. You can see startup, entrepreneurial, and investor communities appear. Now, you can also see large-scale educational initiatives, platforms for sharing experiences, and networking. It is the foundation that is required to build a global infrastructure.

TechUkraine: As we know, you have a marketing, fintech, and gaming background and investment expertise in IT. When and how did you start your path in tech? And what was the turning point for deep diving in it?

Sergey Tokarev:  I didn’t have any turning point, and I don’t even think I chose this path consciously. I let my curiosity guide me.

I love to look at everything around me, test tech products, talk to all kinds of people, whoever they are, and learn something new from them. This is how I started my path. Everything that falls into my hands, everything I see, I engage with it with curiosity.

When I was fifteen, I read in a magazine how to make a simple HTML page in the Notebook app. At the time, it was called Home Page. So, I wrote down the code, opened it in a browser. Then, I found large pieces of code from other sites, added them to my page. I was curious about what would come out of this experiment. Simple curiosity led to developing my mindset.

TechUkraine: Kyiv-based Roosh was founded in 2021, and during the year, it broke into the market with ambitious projects: Pawa, AI HOUSE, AI HOUSE Conference, Roosh Ventures. Who are the initiators, co-founders, and investors of Roosh? What is the key goal of the tech company?

Sergey Tokarev: Roosh’s most significant achievement of 2021 was our launch as a company. Our development chronology is not the most conventional. 

A number of our projects started before the management structure’s launch. But since last summer, Roosh has been a tech company investing and launching projects with a focus on machine learning. Today there are more than 100 of us. This year, Roosh made a rapid leap towards its global goal of building an internationally-recognized hub for ML and AI projects in Ukraine.

Roosh has a corporate structure. I am the Founding Partner. Our Managing Partner is Reface co-founder Den Dmitrenko, the Senior Partner is Sergey Kartashov, and we also have other partners, department managers, etc. You can find a detailed structure on our website, 

First, we needed to structure projects we already had and release projects that were conceived of in 2020.

Our main goal is to create and develop an ecosystem that will make Ukraine a noticeable player on the global artificial intelligence, machine learning, and IT market.

TechUkraine: Do you have any global benchmarks for Roosh? Where are the horizons for the company?The core technology approach of Roosh is based on AI and ML. Why are you pushing forward these innovation drivers?

Sergey Tokarev: I like to mentor entrepreneurs, help people grow, and develop product companies. I want us to have as many such companies as possible. I want Ukraine to have as many entrepreneurs as possible.

I want people to share their successes, failures, experiences with other people. As an entrepreneur, this is how I see my mission.

And the global goal of Roosh is to develop the tech market in Ukraine and make the country a large-scale IT hub for Europe and the world. That’s also why we focus on creating, supporting, and developing AI and ML projects. It is a fascinating area that is still underdeveloped in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, and in fact, it is a vacant niche. 

We have highly-qualified professionals who create advanced AI/ML technologies and bring them to the world. And as you said, these are the innovation drivers. We, at Roosh, want to accumulate as many of these projects and professionals as possible so that Ukraine will be associated with the world’s best AI developments.

TechUkraine: Could you tell us more about SET University? Why do you think IT entrepreneurs require specific knowledge instead of a degree?

Sergey Tokarev: SET University is a new higher-educational institution with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We are launching this large-scale project together with the Kyiv School of Economics. We want to give our students access to the world’s best educators and the latest technologies, to create a strong link between science, business, and technology. We are in contact with leading developers from all over the world who work in the most relevant IT areas, and the Kyiv School of Economics has a solid academic base.

We will have a Startup Lab. And as a master’s thesis, students will develop a startup idea, build an MVP, create a professional pitch deck, and defend their project in front of real IT entrepreneurs.

I believe that many of the students will graduate as founders of their own companies, and they will be the ones who will form a new economy in Ukraine.

The market dictates the need for such an approach. According to statistics, about 50% of graduates of tech universities cannot find a job, even though the industry has an apparent shortage of employees.

Companies are not ready to hire graduates because their knowledge and expertise are irrelevant. But if they nevertheless decide to do so, then in most cases, they have to retrain new employees and give them modern knowledge before admitting them to real-life work.

SET University solves this problem by involving top developers with the most relevant knowledge in the educational process.

Apart from the tuition model, the university will offer grants and scholarships from tech companies, investors, foundations, international organizations, and me personally. We are also introducing a new payment model that we are greatly interested in, called the Income Share Agreement. By signing this agreement, students will study and access all university resources for free. And only after they get a job, they will be paying a certain percentage of their salary to the university for several years.

We want to educate as many people as possible using this model, and it will help us create an entirely new mindset in students. They will be grateful to their alma mater and do everything for the new students who come after them to receive a high-quality education, just like they did. This approach will create a new ecosystem, a new mindset.

An indicator of the university’s success is the fastest possible employment of the graduates for good high-paying positions. After all, the sooner our graduate gets a high-paying job, the faster the university will recoup its costs and will be able to provide more opportunities for new students.

But, again, our global goal is to create a new mindset in the tech sector, a new economy.

We want to teach the country to export tech products instead of the workforce, and we want to make Ukraine a recognized technological center.

To provide this level of attention, we need to start with the fundamental things, and education is one of them.

TechUkraine: Cyprus IT Forum, STEM is FEM, LuckyBooks — different educational and charitable projects co-founded or supported by you. What is the mission and vision of developing such social-oriented projects?

Sergey Tokarev: All these projects are related to science and technology in one way or another. I personally really enjoy studying. As I’ve already said, education is the foundation that will allow us to create a new community in Ukraine, develop a new mindset, and change the country for the better. Each of the listed projects has its goals and history.

Back in 2016, we joined a project to reform children’s libraries. We helped create an open space in the children’s library in the Podil area in Kyiv. While exploring the topic, we learned about the current problems and challenges. It turned out that Ukrainian libraries lacked such a book category as educational literature for teenagers in Ukraine, which was especially relevant for the eastern regions. So, we decided to fill in this gap. Over the course of several years, we’ve managed to publish and distribute over 10,000 books to libraries, free of charge: both translated literature and Ukrainian nonfiction books.

The idea for STEM is FEM appeared differently. I’ve been trying to achieve gender parity in my companies for many years.

The maximum we got is 38%. There are fewer women, not only in IT companies but also in the tech industry. That’s why we decided to explore the problem.

It turned out that during the school years, many girls gifted in technological disciplines leave these areas due to the pressure from their families, environment, and school. 

IT is stereotypically a male-dominated industry like many others in STEM. We decided to fight these stereotypes and motivate schoolgirls interested in mathematics, applied science, and technology to explore these areas. We have developed a large-scale program, and once every two months, we conduct educational modules in various disciplines: from biotechnology to robotics. We invite motivational speakers: female diplomats, ambassadors, ministers, heads of international organizations to visit our students. And we also invite female speakers from related industries. These are women who have achieved success in the area related to the module topic.

The project is over two years old now, and the STEM is FEM community has expanded to several thousands of people. Many project participants have chosen technological specialties and are already studying them in universities.

Over time, STEM is FEM gave us an idea of another project, НАУКА — ЦЕ ВОНА (SCIENCE IS SHE). During one of the modules, we were talking about science. And we realized that children and adults know Ukrainian male scientists well, while they barely could name any female scientists whose achievements were no less significant. We decided to deal with this problem and popularize Ukrainian female scientists, and at the same time, to motivate girls to pursue a career in science. We had a great presentation of the project in Kyiv and then traveled with it throughout most of Ukraine, and now we have taken it abroad.

TechUkraine: Which kind of groundbreaking ideas, inventions are you keeping an eye on? What’s the next big thing?

Sergey Tokarev: I am closely following the development of metaverses. This direction will be relevant in the coming years, and many inventions will be associated with it, including AI and ML developments. I also like healthcare technology. I use various activity trackers, study my sleep, and practice intermittent fasting. And, of course, I monitor all the innovations in this area.

And — this might be obvious — I monitor everything related to artificial intelligence and robotics. I admire everything Boston Dynamics does.

TechUkraine: What are the priorities and plans for the next year? Sneak peek by Sergiy Tokarev and the Roosh team.

Sergey Tokarev: As for the plans for the next year, everything is simple: to become faster, higher, stronger. 

  • Next fall, SET University will welcome its first students.
  • AI HOUSE will hold its second AI HOUSE Conference and bring new AI experts to Kyiv. We are launching up to 10 schools and bootcamps, where Ukrainian talents will gain knowledge in MLOps, product management in AI, working with big data, and developing soft skills for ML engineers. The schools will be organized in partnerships with a French ML Academy, Ukrainian Catholic University, and Kyivstar. In total, there will be up to 400 graduates.
  • ZibraAI, part of the Roosh ecosystem, will continue to create products that can accelerate the video games development process. This year, they’ve launched Zibra Liquids, the first ML-based fluid simulation plugin on the market available for commercial use. Next year, they will release a plugin for real-time and physically accurate smoke and fog simulation.
  • Pawa (our ML venture studio) will launch its first startup.

Roosh Ventures will add new projects to its portfolio, and we plan to invest $25M. 

In general, we will grow Roosh, launch new large-scale projects, and work towards our primary goal — to make Ukraine a globally recognized technology center.

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