As war rages, Ukrainian startups spread message of hope

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Ukrainian entrepreneurs brought a message of hope to this week’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Europe’s largest tech gathering that ended on Friday: the war has made them more resilient than ever.

Standing next to her company’s stand, Olga Shapovalova, who works at education technology company Headway, said Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 changed everything. Working from a bomb shelter became normal. Some of the startup’s employees fled.

But even as Russian missiles rained down, Headway grew its business. It hired dozens of workers, opened an office in neighbouring Poland, and used its learning app to combat the invader’s propaganda.

“This is how we show that Ukrainians are so strong and we can get business done,” said the 31-year-old. “We are trying to grow – it’s how we fight, in our own way, to help Ukraine and our economy.”

Alexander Sobolenko, the chief executive of Releaf Paper, which is headquartered in Kyiv and transforms biowaste into sustainable paper, struck a similar chord.

“Many more Ukrainians came to the Web Summit this time,” he added, standing in front of the Ukrainian pavillion.

Web Summit chief Paddy Cosgrave told Reuters last week 59 Ukrainian startups were at the 2022 event. The country’s first lady Olena Zelenska and digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov also attended.

“This is a good sign that the Ukrainian tech and startup ecosystem is developing even during a time of war,” said Sobolenko.

With over 2,000 startups, Ukraine’s technology scene was thriving before the war. Now, nine out of ten need financial help, according to a survey by TechUkraine. But it also found the vast majority had kept going and maintained at least some operations or staff in Ukraine despite the conflict.

“Our main strength is our people,” said Olesya Malevanaya, from Ukrainian Hub, an organisation supporting entrepreneurs. “They are strong and creative … we have everything to continue to grow our innovation sector.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony Editing by Andrei Khalip and Mark Potter)

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