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Finance, Shipping, AI, and Alternative Data: An Interview with the Founder of Thalesians Marine Ltd Oleksandr Bilokon

Left to right: Oleksandr Bilokon and Neil Fowler

Today we’ll be talking to Oleksandr (Alex) Bilokon, the Founder and Managing Director of Thalesians Marine Ltd, a company that is bridging artificial intelligence, finance, logistics, and shipping. Both finance and artificial intelligence are intimately familiar to our audience, but shipping and logistics may be new. Alex, you have spent several decades working in these fields. Can you tell us more about them?

Certainly. Before I settled ashore, I worked through the ranks as marine engineer, ultimately serving as Chief Engineer on large container vessels. Then in 1996 I joined V.Ships and gained experience in Cyprus, Hamburg, and London.

In 2006 V.Ships set up a joint venture with China Shipping in Shanghai, and I became General Manager of this joint venture, China International Ship Management. In 2011 the joint venture expanded its business. By 2015 more shipping companies expanded into the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. In 2017 V.Ships was awarded its first technical ship management contract in Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone. I was honoured to be able to showcase our ship management expertise. Our local management team was supported by a global network across V.Group.

For the benefit of our readers, the ship management company V.Ships is part of V.Group Holdings Limited, headquartered in London. Through its V.Ships and ITM brands, V.Group manages a fleet of over 1,000 vessels, a crew roster of over 26,000 and several marine technical services brands. You won two V.Group CEO Awards, one in 2014 and one in 2015. Can you tell us more about them?

I received these awards because, for a UK-headquartered company, our stellar expansion in Asia was a big deal. Our company was all over the news. In this work I was supported by a strong local management team that I had trained and nurtured from day one, and the local management team was supported by a global network across V.Group, and this provided our clients with a committed and passionate team to help them achieve their business goals.

And then you founded Thalesians Marine Ltd, your own company in London?

That’s right. I founded Thalesians Marine Ltd in 2019, and I remain the Company’s CEO and sole Director. We are a global service provider to the transport and financial services sectors. The company combines decades of experience and domain knowledge with the latest advances in technology and science, including high-performance computing (HPC), big data, data science, and artificial intelligence (AI) / machine learning (ML).

So now you are betting on the United Kingdom?

While our clients are all over the world, most of them are local and are based in the United Kingdom. We work closely with Neil Fowler’s World Business Strategies, or WBS Training, for example, on the education front. Together we offer training courses, such as the Machine Learning Institute Certificate (MLI) and Quantitative Developer Certificate (QDC).

Can you tell us more about these courses?

The goal of the MLI is to upskill the delegates, so they know enough machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to be effective with it. AI expertise is no longer a nice thing to have if you don’t want to have your job taken from you by AI. We are all very cautious about this, as are our delegates. And we teach AI well. We have some of the best people in the world from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford. We have spent many years to foster these academic connections.

The Quantitative Developer Certificate (QDC) is all about coding rather than maths or AI. In fact, not only coding (programming), but also software engineering. We teach the programming languages that are the most in demand: Python, C++, and kdb+/q. Both certificates have been designed in such a way as to enable our students to do them over a six- to nine-month period without having to leave work. We understand that the current job market is challenging.

But we don’t just educate. We consult, we built artificial intelligence models for clients, we build software, with help with logistics, and we help with shipping. We have cross-disciplinary domain knowledge.

Are most of your clients in finance?

Finance clients are acutely aware of the threat and promises of AI, and they are aware of programming, so yes, many do have background in risk, trading, sales, IT, or similar. But we continue to push data science in logistics and shipping. These industries are taking longer to adapt to the new AI-driven world, but we are betting on them catching up.

Why did you pivot towards AI and data science?

There were numerous disruptions in supply chains at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and shipping and logistics became very volatile. Pivoting towards AI wasn’t a gamble, it was an educated guess that is beginning to payoff with the rise of large language models (LLMs). This is helping hedge and adequately respond to the geopolitical risks. In some sense this is a pivot, but I would prefer to use the word diversification.

You recently wrote a book and co-wrote another book. Can you tell us about them?

Artificial Intelligence in Shipping and Logistics considers the impact of AI on logistics and the shipping industry. We consider such topical areas as predictive maintenance, route optimization, autonomous ships, cargo handling, supply chain management, environmental monitoring and compliance, risk management and safety, customer service and predictive analytics, port operation optimization, vessel performance monitoring, crew management and training, supply chain visibility, cargo security and risk assessment, weather forecasting and routing, trade compliance and documentation, energy management and efficiency, customer relationship management, and legal and regulatory compliance. We also briefly consider the future prospects of applying AI in shipping and logistics. It’s the first such book of its kind, certainly in these industries.

The other book, A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence, is an introductory book on AI for people who don’t necessarily come from STEM. It’s the book that you can give your parents or to your nontechnical boss who has a degree in liberal arts, or an MBA, but definitely not a PhD. It reads more like a novel, but it was designed to initiate people into artificial intelligence. Hopefully, once you’ve read it, you’ll be ready to read an introductory technical book.

What would you describe as the single most significant technical development that will revolutionize logistics and shipping?

I would go for alternative data. One of our clients is the London firm Turnleaf Analytics, which produces industry-leading inflation forecasts. The two founders, Alexander Denev and Saeed Amen have published The Book of Alternative Data. (All these books are available on Amazon.co.uk by the way.) Shipping and logistics are wonderful sources of alternative data. Just think of the satellite and terrestrial AIS datasets that provide insights into vessel traffic analyses, port call information, and accident investigations. It could be used in trading. It could be used to optimize shipping and logistics. It could help reduce risk and plan the safest routes based on vessel traffic patterns and seasonal changes. It could help lower the carbon emissions and improve the environment. (Here is, by the way, yet another link between finance and shipping.)

Our company has recently published A Compendium of Data Sources for Data Science, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence. It has since been downloaded 1,650 and viewed 3,433 times on SSRN. It’s one of the ten All Time Top Papers papers for Computational Neuroscience & Artificial Neural Networks eJournal (currently it’s ranking sixth).

You are very positive about the United Kingdom’s competitive advantages in this area. Why is that?

Our team operates out of London’s Docklands, especially Canary Wharf. Our trading office is at Level39 in Canary Wharf, the UK’s premier FinTech hub. This area is now home to skyscraping offices, but originally it was built for shipping. As Britain is an island nation, shipping and the maritime sectors are among the most important industries to the UK economy. The UK maritime sector employs 185,000 people and contributes nearly £40 billion to the contry’s economy. Would seaborne trade is predicted to continue to rise over the next 10 years, meaning employment opportunities both at sea and ashore look set to expand. The glorious days of the London Docklands, which were among the busiest ports in the world, are testimony to the fact that these industries will rise again. What Thalesians Marine Ltd wants to do is to ensure that the new incarnation of these industries will be high tech, and that the jobs that will be created will be of the highest quality. We are already creating such jobs today. We are always mindful of the need to support our immediate local community, of which we are an integral part. We don’t see any contradiction between this and the truly global thinking, global ambitions.

Can you give us some examples of such support?

Certainly. We actively support the Mudchute Park and Farm, which is located in the middle of the Isle of Dogs. We recently adopted a llama, for example. These animals will be there for adults and children who visit the Mudchute Farm in the Docklands. The farm is a community-based charity that engages with its users and responds to the needs of the local community.

If you mean London as a whole, then we work with charities such as Centrepoint, which provides a safe space for young people to build an independent future. They provide the expert support and secure housing that young people need to reclaim their dreams and have a future beyond homelessness.

Incidentally, I’m taking part in Battersea Park Running Festival in November 2024 on behalf of Thalesians Marine Ltd. As part of this endeavour, I’m raising money to benefit Centrepoint (they are also known as Centrepoint Soho, but it’s the same charity). Here is a link to my fundraising page.

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