Interview With Cornel Amariei – The anatomy of creativity, innovation as a mindset and challenging the status quo at .lumen

Cornel Amariei is an inventor to the full extent of the word. He started reading at 3 and programming at 7. At 15, he founded Romania’s first high-school Robotics Club, which in three years with him as a leader received over 70 international awards. And this was just the start of his journey. After operating as Head of Innovation at Continental Automotive Systems, he founded .lumen, a startup that creates glasses empowering the blind to live a better life.

You contributed to writing well over 50 patents. And you always like to say that ‘experts can’t innovate’. If innovation is subject to intersectionality, then who are innovators? What makes an innovator?

First of all, patents and innovation aren’t always the same thing. Innovation comes from multiple places, but it’s a product of creativity, which stems in curiosity. Once you’re curious, you want to learn a bit of everything, which gets you to a place of intellectual diversity. From that, you start to assemble different pieces – to pick something from here and pick something from there, and to put some elements together for the first time.

So, for me, innovation is about finding problems and coming up with solutions. Now one thing we don’t do well as a society is that experts, in the way we create them, can’t innovate. Innovation comes from interdisciplinarity and connecting things for the first time. But if you’re always taught in your academic and professional life to only look only one way, it’s difficult to get that kind of perspective.

Endeavor: What is one innovation you wish you’d thought of first? Is there such a thing, do you get this feeling?

No, not necessarily. I do think the greatest invention of the last 50 years is the iPhone by far, but it’s not like it’s something which I could have envisioned. I don’t trap myself into somebody else’s thinking, and I don’t trap myself into regret, I try to stay as far away from it as possible.

But if I were to think of something that I find impressive, I would take all those monumental inventions from hundreds of years ago, which are so simple by today’s standards. What’s exciting about them is that there was someone out there who had to think about them for the first time, even if today they seem obvious.

What’s your experience being an innovator in Romania, and how would you see it looking with serious investment in research?

I don’t think that larger investments are the solution to being more innovative, not just pouring money into R&D. What matters more are the people you have and how they’re led. And I do agree that Romanians are very creative, partly because we grew up in the environment we grew up in, with a communist regime in which we didn’t have much, but where we had to make things work.

From this demographic perspective, we’re pretty unique. But we have to work on connecting the dots better. We’re still learning to do business, and we’re a very risk averse culture.

The pros of more funding would be that you’d perhaps see more early stage businesses and more people taking risks, because there’s definitely a safety net in having your financial bases covered. More money from the state would be a potential risk at this point, as there are still some reminiscent ways of solving issues in an isolated bureaucratic bubble that won’t actually innovate in the real world. For the startup world, it would have definitely been much easier for this first generation of startups to have access to more funding.

But what we should work towards is making risks the norm if we want to innovate, especially now when we’ve got the opportunity to just get a cozy job. I’d even say that not being willing to risk is one of the biggest cultural differences between us in Europe and the United States.

What should we do collectively to change that? Do you see it changing in the future? 

There’s this thing called the pyramid of beliefs. Everybody wants results. But there are two more layers in this pyramid before results – experiences and actions. The first step for us will be creating experiences that change our core beliefs, leading to better actions and better results.

And we need these experiences for more people to understand that, for instance, taking risks is not a bad decision, but a rewarding experience because even if you fail, failure is not bad in itself, and most of the time it’s even an opportunity in disguise.

These experiences come from local heroes first, people who are doing their part in showing that getting inspired by success stories can lead to positive actions and impact. This is one thing we can do – we can give it time and we can wait for more “crazy” people to challenge existing beliefs. It takes a while, but these pioneers will become models for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

And more specifically, I believe that Romania should fundamentally change its approach and go more towards applied research. There are some research grants that are worth applying to, but this can only work if people start to be collectively aware of the funding opportunities to actually apply to them.

How much is the result of culture and how much is innovation only contingent on encountering issues and solving them? 

This is interesting, because I think statistics will actually work against me on this one. I wanted to say that innovation cannot thrive in a comfortable environment. Because once you’re comfortable what’s the point of innovating? Innovation generally comes from problems.

However if you look at the most innovative countries in Europe, you’ll have countries like Sweden and Switzerland on the top of the scoreboard, which is partly perplexing in my mind because I’d say that you can’t observe these problems in too much confort or in too much conflict.

Otherwise, I’d say you need both. Innovation for the purpose of innovation isn’t useful, and innovation for the sole purpose of money is bad. You need the environment to guide you in finding the problems you’re going to solve as well as exposure to them. And you also require problem solving capability, whether it’s creativity or other soft skills or even hard skills.


What keeps you motivated, having worked for years to launch one product? How do you stay focused on the goal yourself and how do you keep your team motivated?

I think Guy Kawasaki said this, and I absolutely love it: ‘the bigger the challenge, the better the work’. This applies to us, since our challenge is incredibly motivating in itself. We started working together to solve a real problem, and the first few months we were motivated by the problem ahead of us. After the first few months, there can appear operational problems, but in our case we had started our experiments.

And when they worked, the energy right there was something else entirely. I still remember January 2021, the first time when a default logical system was able to replace a guide dog and, with it, a millennia old paradigm. It had never before been achieved in history. It took us a few hours to realize what we’d accomplished, and how our big challenge was actually solvable.

And then, we kept being motivated by different iterations and different results. That’s the benefit of always finding yourself at the limit of what technology can do, of being the ones pushing what it is that technology can do.

Then, there’s the aspect of scope – we have different teams of psychologists, clinical researchers, software engineers, mechanical and industrial designers, electronics engineers. And in every one of these fields, there’s some aspect of uniqueness in what we do, which helps a great deal in keeping us anchored in our purpose.

It was actually pretty funny with all the awards that we won, because the first feeling was that we don’t deserve them, the immediate feeling after that was that we should work until we feel that we deserve them. And of course we’d celebrate that night, but the day after that, everyone was at their office doing their work, business as usual.

I think this is a fun aspect of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Because once you have the first layers covered, the upper layers never last. It’s a recursive process of having to work more and achieve more, and it’s incredibly motivating once you get the first results.

Where are you headed with .lumen in the near or foreseeable future? 

In the following months, you can expect to see more ‘behind the scenes’ videos, which we’d like to share with the world.

Other than that, we’re in a clinical testing stage, as we’re working on medical clinical devices and there are currently blind people testing our device continuously. We’re scheduled to ship the product in the second half of 2024. This feels like the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re beyond excited about it.

We also have a new investment round which we opened, of 5 million euro, of which around 50% is already committed, and we are in the process of raising the other 50%.