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Startup culture in a frontline city

Startup culture in a frontline city

1991 Mariupol is a new startup hub located a stone’s throw away from the frontline trenches of Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia. Can this tech initiative help the region retain young talent facing an uncertain future due to Russian aggression? (Courtesy photo)

Amid the warfare and geopolitics swirling around Ukraine these days, a brighter future is already taking shape. Denis Gursky is one of the many Ukrainians who are moving the country forward by building new businesses and innovating. He recently opened the first technology startup center in Mariupol, a major port city in eastern Ukraine that lies just 20 kilometers from the frontlines of the country’s undeclared war with Russia. “Citizens hear gunfire from time to time,” he says. “It’s a long way from civilization and the city has suffered hardships, but this is the perfect moment to do this.”

Gursky’s new startup center is called 1991 Mariupol. It will serve as a meeting place for innovators, young talents, active citizens, local authorities, business representatives, and investors. The aim is to provide the kind of opportunities that will allow Mariupol to retain the thousands of IT professionals trained here who until now have typically had to leave the city behind in order to advance their careers. “We want to help them to stay,” says Gursky, who is himself a native of Mariupol.

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This is Gursky’s second startup hub. In 2016, his non-governmental
agency, Social Boost, opened a center in Kyiv that has enjoyed considerable success
with help from the Omidyar Network. That center currently hosts 700 individuals,
working in teams of five. In a handful of years, it has already launched 153 separate
startup businesses that have raised USD 2 million in capital and grants. The Mariupol center is modelled on the 1991 Kyiv operation, and has
received funding from USAID ERA, the European Investment Bank, and the Mariupol
Development Fund.

“1991 Mariupol is a co-working space with startup acceleration programs
for the Ukrainian market,” Gursky explains. “It will develop custom
solutions and creative IT for government agencies and business enterprises,
many of them located in the east (of Ukraine). Local professionals will work
with mentors in order to get to the pilot stage, then they will launch with a
city council or enterprise client.” Despite the
close proximity of the war, Mariupol remains a major industrial city, creating
a natural portfolio of potential clients. There is also considerable local demand
for IT projects that support ecological initiatives, public sports activities,
and logistics or transportation efforts. “We hope to convert teams of IT
professionals into product companies helping local industries and the city
council to digitize their services,” he says.

Due to the
ongoing conflict and a range of other longer-term factors, Mariupol has been
economically depressed for a number of years. Nevertheless, twelve months ago, Gursky
decided his hometown was ready for a startup center that could help kick-start
the entire region’s innovation economy. “I didn’t really think it was a
possibility, but then I came to understand how the war had changed this city,”
he says. “Tough conditions have created a new generation of people who are
hungry for innovation and who are very connected via their smartphones. In the
1990s, Mariupol had high crime rates and was an extremely tough city, but now
the young people want opportunities. We give them training, mentoring,
visibility, and help find big pilot project clients.”

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Gursky is a
ranking member and elder statesman of Ukraine’s dynamic IT social movement. Together
with his brother Viktor and three friends, in 2012 Gursky launched the NGO
Social Boost, which is dedicated to making a difference by digitally harnessing
public and government data. For instance, during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan
protests in Kyiv, the Social Boost community developed an app that allowed
protesters to let their relatives know where they were via their smartphones.
Then followed apps mapping safe zones near the war and indicating potholes for motorists.
An online registry developed by Social Boost provides information about
government activities for use by anti-corruption activists and the media. The
NGO also played a crucial role in implementing groundbreaking open government
data reforms that have made Ukraine one of the world’s top 15 open government data
countries.

Since the
launch of Gursky’s Kyiv incubator, its teams have developed innovations ranging
from drones that monitor crop yields to a website that keeps track of court
decisions and an alert service that warns people as they enter potentially dangerous
city districts. Meanwhile, his NGO Social Boost has developed an IT system that
enables citizens to get involved in municipal budgets and tell local
representatives where they want their tax monies to go. The system now operates
in dozens of Ukrainian cities. While such technology is relatively rare internationally,
more than two million people have already logged on in Ukraine. Ukrainian users
have found that such IT inventions are not only effective anti-corruption
measures, but also important building blocks towards better governance and
economic improvement.

“Our hope in
Mariupol is to revitalize the region and train the next generation to digitize
and make eastern Ukraine free,” says Gursky of his hometown startup initiative.
“Our goal is to provide opportunities for young people to keep them in Ukraine
by helping them build businesses and creating services here, not in other
countries. We know they can do it, and they are doing it.”

Diane Francis is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Editor at Large with the National Post in Canada, a Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and author of ten books.

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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