Prof Aleks Farseev, who launched martech start-up SoMin.ai, grew up in a Christian household knowing "there is God in control of everything”. All photos courtesy of Prof Aleks Farseev.

It is deep tech worthy of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters.

AI that mines data from social media to predict behaviour and then uses that information to create targeted digital ads. This is, in a nutshell, what SoMin.ai does.

The start-up is part of DMV Redemptive Labs, the accelerator programme of Digital Mission Ventures (DMV), a capital provider and accelerator that helps early-stage tech founders looking to use their business for Kingdom impact.

Prof Aleks Farseev has created a cloud-based platform that is able to remove the guesswork involved in creating ads by harnassing data from social media accounts and predicting the preferences of people.

At the helm of the martech (marketing technology) start-up is co-founder and CEO Prof Aleks Farseev.

He is part researcher, part entrepreneur, all visionary. Unendingly patient as he explains the complexities of his SaaS (software as a service) solution, he even stops to assure that he is not irked that he has to explain his life’s work simplistically.

“People think I am angry all the time but it’s just my face,” says the 33-year-old with good humour.

No fear of robot uprising

Born and bred in Russia, Prof Aleks came to Singapore in 2013 to do his PhD in Computer Science and stayed. Now he and his business are based in the country.

“I always knew there is God in control of everything.”

Asked why a computer scientist would want to venture into the emotive world of advertising, he explains: “We see ourselves as a platform that helps marketeers in all steps of the journey to make things more transparent, more data-driven and more efficient. 

“AI becomes a friend that helps people plan, strategise and achieve their KPIs.

“When there is a proper plan and strategy, people are more satisfied with their jobs. It helps lower turnover rates. The advertising industry has the number two turnover rate of 30% because people are not happy working in the industry.”

If his goal to use AI to deliver sales results automatically and extensively with minimum human involvement sounds scarily like a script for robot uprising, Prof Aleks is unfazed.

You fear what you do not understand, he tells Salt&Light, sharing of a time when professors protested the use of calculators out of fear.

“AI is just Math with powerful computers,” says Prof Aleks.

Prof Aleks with key members of the SoMin.ai team.

“Marketing can be a healthy industry because it brings relevant knowledge to people on what to buy and what not want to buy.

“Our imagination and work can be turned into good or bad depending on whose hands it is in. Everything can be used by God in a good way, just as it can be used by the devil in a bad way.”

Beyond that, Prof Aleks is selective about which industries he partners.

“We do not get involved in general in the Industries that are not aligned with God’s kingdom. For example we are very selective when it comes to particularly industries that deal with gambling.”

This conviction to live and work right by God has its foundation in Prof Aleks’ experience with divine intervention in his life even at a young age.

The simple faith that brought a duck 

Prof Aleks grew up in a Christian household and was baptised as an infant. The 70-odd years of Communism, he said, was no match for the more than 1,000 years of Russian Orthodoxy.

“I always knew there is God in control of everything.”

As a child, he would spend his summers with his grandmother. Because he played the accordion well, the adults would often ask him to play for them.

Baby Aleks visiting his grandmother.

During duck hunting season, he would even be invited to tag along on hunts to provide musical entertainment. On one particular hunt, the men returned empty-handed. Young Aleks, all of eight years old then, offered to pray for ducks.

“My mother had taught me to pray for my needs.”

The men laughed at his simple faith because the day was coming to a close. There would be no ducks appearing any time soon.

But not more than 30 seconds after young Aleks finished his prayer, his mother appeared with a duck in hand.

Young Aleks enjoyed being asked by the adults to play the accordion for them.

“She told me that she was walking in the village when the duck flew into her hand. She thought I would be interested in seeing the duck.

“You can imagine how shocked the hunters were. I am a mathematician. I know the odds. Never before and never after have I seen wild ducks run into a person’s hand in the middle of a village. It must have travelled about 1km to reach the village.

“Every time I have doubts about God, I remember this incident.”

An unexpected book

Prof Aleks continues to see God in his life.

A year ago, he had to return to Russia to settle an issue about his research grant at a university there. The war in Ukraine was raging then and Russia was conscripting citizens to bolster their military efforts.

“There was a super huge wave of people leaving Russia, especially those in IT positions. All my relatives in Russia told me not to come.”

But the grant was too significant a sum to let go. The money was needed to support the staff at SoMin.ai. He had to go.

Prof Aleks (centre) with the co-founders of SoMin.ai, an AI-powered platform aimed at changing the world of advertising.

En route to Russia, Prof Aleks stopped over in London and attended a Russian Orthodox Church service. After the service, he visited the church bookstore. To his surprise, he found a book by CS Lewis there.

“The Russian Orthodox Church does not usually accept anything apart from the Orthodox religion. To find a non-Orthodox book in their bookstore was quite a surprise.”

Prof Aleks bought the book, The Screwtape Letters, dropped it into his bag and promptly forgot about it.

So do not fear

As was his practice, Prof Aleks also went to a service at Holy Trinity Brompton. When he consulted the vicar about his impending trip home, the man told him: “God already told you what to do. You already know. You don’t need to ask anymore.”

That surprised Prof Aleks who had expected him to dissuade him from returning to Russia. But as he boarded the plane home, the fear for his life refused to leave him.

“It was probably one of the strongest fears in my life. I could be taken by the army straight from the airport or I may not be able to leave Russia.

“I am not a very sensitive person. So God talks to me in a straightforward fashion.”

“So I could not sleep. I could not do anything.”

Then he remembered the book he had bought. To distract himself, he read it.

“Almost instantly, I reached the chapter where the senior devil Screwtape was teaching the younger devil what to do with the person they were trying to tempt.

“It was written at the time of World War II. The man was in London and he was super afraid. First, he was afraid that he would be kidnapped. Second, he was afraid that he would be killed. Third, he was afraid his family would be bombed. Fourth, he was afraid his family would be kidnapped.

“The senior devil then told the junior one to never let the man know that all the bad things could not possibly happen to him at the same time because the moment he knew, he would not be afraid anymore.”

The situation depicted was uncannily similar to what Prof Aleks was facing. It was exactly the encouragement he needed. He finished the book and went to sleep.

His two-week stay in Russia turned out to be uneventful and he managed to secure his research grant.

“I am not a very sensitive person. So God talks to me in a straightforward fashion.

“That makes me feel quite confident because I know if I do something wrong, I will get a very clear message.”

Divine guidance

Prof Aleks also believes that God has been watching over SoMin.ai.

When the war in Ukraine broke out three years ago, the start-up was badly affected. Many of his employees were in Russia, as was much of the business. The company was haemorrhaging as much as over $150,000 a month sustaining the employees and giving them time to find employment elsewhere.

“I never asked God why this happened. Just listen to what He wants you to do.”

SoMin.ai had to start all over again in a new market – Southeast Asia. But Prof Aleks sees God’s goodness even in this.

“He let us fund raise just before the war broke out. So we had enough cash to go through those two years.

“I never asked God why this happened. Just listen to what He wants you to do.”

In fact, he sees the roadblock as God’s way of redirecting him.

Had SoMin.ai not had to go back to square one, Prof Aleks may not have sought help. Then he would not have found an opportunity with the Singapore-based Kingdom impact venture capitalist firm Digital Mission Ventures (DMV).

No fear of troubles

Prof Aleks continues to believe that, if he walks right with God, God will direct his path. This is why he wants SoMin.ai to redeem the advertising world.

“We are focussed on driving value to employees and clients, helping them to become better partners, marketeers and businesses.

“God, don’t give me what I don’t need even if I want it or ask for it.”

“We often compromise margins to help businesses who really want to change for better. Sometimes our operations manager says to our clients, ‘You don’t need our services, use the money to invest in infrastructure to improve.’”

As recently as two days before the interview with Salt&Light, Prof Aleks saw God redirect his path.

“We had a deal of $500,000 cancelled at the last moment. Now we are in challenging times. We have to re-plan, the team has to do something else we are not ready for.

“But to me, it was a good occasion – one more chance for me to be reminded that God is in control. I had a great sense of peace when I received the news that they had rejected us.”

Resilience is vital to every start-up founder. For Prof Aleks, this is not merely a character trait but a result of his faith.

SoMin.ai aims to bring transparency to the advertising world using data.

“In this world, it is impossible to be without tribulations. But that is the only thing that sharpens us for assignments in the future.

“Maybe through this, I can be a better CEO. Without VC money, I may have to concentrate on structures that are not so good which I would not have focussed on if I had lots of cash.

“One of the prayers a pastor taught me was, ‘God, don’t give me what I don’t need even if I want it or ask for it.’

“I think this part is very important for start-ups.”


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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.