Alumni stories: UCL friends found $1m Harvard start-up
20 July 2021
At UCL's 2011 Freshers Week, students Alaa Latif (Biochemical Engineering) and James Theuerkauf (Economics) met and became friends. Now, nearly ten years later, after graduating from UCL in 2015, they spoke to us about their new venture, Syrup.
How did you meet?
James: We lived in the same halls in Fresher’s (John Dodgson) and met through a friend in common, another engineer (Arthur) that I had met during the International Students Orientation.
Alaa: The three of us then lived together in Euston during our second year; James and I would often speak about starting a business together some day. Nearly a decade later – and here we are!
Why did you choose to study at UCL?
James: I loved the idea of studying in London and being at an interdisciplinary university, where I could take classes in Economics but also in Philosophy and Politics and meet people from very diverse backgrounds. Turns out that’s how I found my Co-Founder!
Alaa: I was born and raised in a small Egyptian community in Oman, and always wanted to experience living in a global city. What better place than London, and in particular, London’s global university?
What was your experience like on your degree?
James: I really enjoyed my Economics degree. Particularly the part around econometrics and statistics really appealed to me – and UCL is really strong there. I also really enjoyed all the extra-curriculars (leading a student society, going volunteering to Ghana, participating in Raise-and-Give) and met some of my best friends through my degree.
Alaa: I loved my program at the Department of Biochemical Engineering. It exposed me to a wide range of topics in science and engineering that laid the foundation to the way I think about technical problems. I also had the wonderful opportunity to do a one-year work placement at a top biotech company.
Photo: James Theuerkauf
Tell us about your business venture, Syrup.
James: Syrup.tech is an AI/ML decision-support engine for inventory optimization for retail. We empower brands and retailers to be both more sustainable and more profitable by reducing stock-outs, excess inventory and waste. We provide our customers with end-to-end, data-driven inventory recommendations using advanced machine learning models. We are backed by the Harvard Innovation Labs, Silicon Valley VCs and (former) executives from Adidas, Reformation, Harrods, Reebok, Demandware, Amazon, Salesforce, and Olivela.
Alaa: To do this, we use advanced machine learning models in order to predict demand and then optimize inventory based on this. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty in retail due to ever-changing consumer demand, and we are able to respond to this quickly due to our AI/ML capabilities.
Where did you get the idea for the business?
James: The waste, overproduction and excess inventory that are pervasive in retail really shocked me. Billions of dollars of value are destroyed annually through sub-optimal inventory management, while also having a terrible effect on our planet. I saw an enormous potential to empower better decision making around inventory through the better use of data – and was eager to make a difference.
Alaa: After UCL, I did a Masters in Scientific Computing at the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Data Science at the Data Institute (USF). I saw the tremendous impact that machine learning can have to provide decision support for businesses. When James approached me with the problem statement, I knew that we could build something impactful and highly innovative.
How did you take it from an idea to a reality?
James: We went out to a couple of brands and retailers to see whether they’d be interested trialling a new model for inventory decision support using their data. We found some early partners who were very receptive to the idea and gave us access to their data and to their merchandising teams so we could pilot our algorithms.
Alaa: We then engaged in an iterative process with them, where we could show them our product and send them recommendations, collect their feedback, and improve our product. That initial customer input was invaluable to truly develop an AI/ML-based system that supported their most pressing needs.
What are your plans for the future with Syrup?
James: I would like Syrup to be the intelligent decision-support system that enables data-driven decision-making across the industry, increasing profitability, enhancing sustainability and deepening omni-channel. I want Syrup to be a product that is loved by customers and that creates impact, week over week.
Alaa: There is so much potential to apply different AI/ML models to the problem we’re facing. I want Syrup to be the category-defining solution that leverages the best of AI/ML and stochastic optimization out there to create a real step-change in the way inventory decisions are handled.
How did studying at UCL help you achieve your ambition?
Alaa: UCL introduced me to amazing people, including my Co-Founder James. It also taught me how to think structurally about engineering problems, which influences the way I think about developing out algorithms today.
James: I agree with Al – UCL introduced me to absolutely amazing people! I would also say that the focus in Economics around using statistical models to determine impact is super useful for us today, as we show the impact our decision support is creating to our customers.
What would your advice be to any students thinking of starting a business?
Alaa: Surround yourself with amazing people who are different to you. I may be driving a lot of the algorithm development behind Syrup, but without the incredible support we are getting from professors, customers, investors, advisors, and our peers, it would be impossible to build a business that makes a difference.
James: I truly believe you need to fall in love with a problem. Your solution to that problem will evolve over time, but if you focus on a meaningful problem, you are in a position to build something that the world truly needs.
Syrup is a Harvard Innovation Labs incubated venture that has raised $1m from investors, incl. Silicon Valley VCs, former executives of Reebok, Reformation, Olivela, Demandware, Salesforce, Amazon, Harrods etc. Syrup uses advanced machine learning models to combat waste and overproduction in apparel & fashion - we empower brands and retailers to be more profitable and more sustainable.