Vital Rozhevskyi will never forget the 24th of February. He was fast asleep in his Kyiv apartment when Vlad Solomakha frantically knocked on his door. His friend and fellow cofounder stood there with a stunned look on his face.
“Pack your bags; it’s time to leave,” Solomakha said. Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of their country.
Just four days before that, the pair had secured their first-ever outside investment for their tech startup, Numo, an application designed to help people diagnosed with ADHD live productive lives. It was a major milestone for the pair, who had quit their full-time jobs to start something of their own. Yet it suddenly seemed so small compared to what was actually at stake.
For Rozhevskyi, Solomakha and their fellow 40-plus million compatriots, the past eight months have been an exercise in perseverance, courage and compassion. The entire country of Ukraine remains a battleground. How to carry on with a passion project in the face of war and tragedy remains a constant struggle for the Numo founders.
“You think you will get used to the sirens and bombs, but how can you?” Rozhevskyi told The Standard at TechCrunch Disrupt. The conference was his first time outside of Ukraine in nine months.
“I had forgotten what life outside of war was like,” Rozhevskyi said. “Walking around SF today, I almost cried.”
In the early days of the war—when it seemed inevitable that the Russian military was going to close in—Rozhevskyi and Solomakha left the capital city and traveled west to Lviv. They stayed there for two months, bouncing between friends’ couches and using their time and expertise to connect Ukrainian children to psychotherapists online. Their startup dreams had to take a back seat.
“Supporting the war effort is a daily job,” Solomakha said. “It also united us like never before.”
‘Our economy had to keep working’
Dima Lylyk, 32, a product marketing manager by trade, remembers dropping everything to help defend his country.
When the invasion broke out, he joined his local regional defense force, a volunteer militia. He postponed all operations at his metaverse startup Zeeon, which he founded after the Covid pandemic shuttered in-person offices.
“It was such an emotional time that you really couldn’t focus on anything else,” Lylyk recalled. “But I found out quickly that I wasn’t so much a military guy, so I started to think about other ways to be useful.
“I knew that our economy had to keep working if we wanted to win the war,” he said.
As the weeks turned into months—and Ukraine still hadn’t fallen to Russian forces—the country’s vibrant tech sector started getting back to work.
Zeeon launched its product in June, helping an IT school build a virtual replica of its campus after its physical one was damaged in the war. Lylyk said that it is his vision to turn Zeeon’s metaverse into the “digital cradle of a new civilization.”
Despite leaving the front lines and refocusing on his startup, Lylyk said that he still thinks about how he could serve.
“Now whenever I have a little bit of extra cash, I think about where to spend it,” he said. “Do I donate it to the military, or do I spend it at a local business? I end up spreading it all around. Everyone is just in the mode of helping each other out now.”
The founders of Numo also returned to Kyiv and launched their application in July. They now serve more than 1,000 users around the world, who rely on their community platform to manage their lives with ADHD. The company was named after a popular Ukrainian phrase, used as a means of encouragement, that roughly translates as “do it.”
Forged in War
Participating in the global economy can be tough when men ages 18 to 60 are generally prohibited from leaving the country, as they are in Ukraine. But with the country eager to keep its economy afloat while maintaining Western support in the war, the government has recognized the need to allow the country’s entrepreneurs to drum up customers and partnerships elsewhere.
In anticipation of the return of in-person tech conferences, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation began reaching out to homegrown startups to form a delegation that it could send overseas.
Numo, Zeeon and eight other Ukrainian startups were eventually granted special clearance to leave the country. The only hitch was that since the entire country was under a no-fly restriction, those who wanted to go had to find their own way.
Last week, Rozhevskyi and Solomakha crossed the border into Poland before flying to Norway and then California. Before attending the TechCrunch conference, their delegation toured the Bay Area and even had the opportunity to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who reiterated American support of Ukraine’s defense and recovery.
“These talented entrepreneurs are a big piece of that effort,” Blinken told the delegation at Stanford University.
No one represents the future of Ukrainian tech quite like Nazar Ponochevnyi. The 20-year-old applied mathematics student started developing his company Harmix when he was a teenager in high school. At TechCrunch Disrupt, he dazzled visitors with his machine-learning platform that automatically pairs music to videos that users upload onto it.
“We want to keep hiring in Ukraine,” Ponochevnyi told The Standard. “There are young people who are smarter and more talented than me that need the opportunity. That sometimes gets forgotten because of the war.”
Ponochevnyi currently studies at the University of Toronto, where his status as a student allows him relative freedom of movement. His work at Harmix has also been supported by Ukrainian Startup Fund, another government-owned agency that invests in early-stage startups.
Much like his peers in Ukrainian tech, February was a bittersweet time for Ponochevnyi. He received his largest outside investment in the same month Russia invaded. “It was the best and worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.
“Ukrainian entrepreneurs are underestimated,” said Yana Konovalenko, a 28-year-old native of the Poltava region, near the eastern front of the war. She moved to San Jose five years ago to pursue tech work in Silicon Valley.
After “helplessly following” the war from afar, she joined Zeeon in May as its chief operations officer. She said that participating in the Ukrainian economy again renewed her sense of purpose.
“We’ve shown during this war, and the decades before, that we are resilient and brave,” Konovalenko said. “We can always do more with less.”
Her colleague Lylyk agreed. He wants to see a future in Ukraine where not only the war is over, but one where the Ukrainian people are creating products and apps for the world instead of just outsourcing their technical labor.
“People don’t realize that Ukraine, despite all of its faults, is sort of like a Wakanda,” Lylyk said. He was referring to the fictional country in the Black Panther comics where underneath an unspectacular landscape lies a thriving, technologically advanced society.
“The level of expectations from [tech users in Ukraine] is very high,” he explained.
After spending a week in SF, the delegation will return to Ukraine, where the war and a tough winter loom. But for someone like Lylyk, the brief escape solidified his resolve both as an entrepreneur and a Ukrainian.
“It has crystallized my commitment,” he said. “The takeaway of this week is that we are doing the right thing and serving our country in our own way.”
Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at [email protected]