What are they — Ukrainian space startups? And why do we know almost nothing about them?
On April 25 at the iForum conference there was an additional session, the “City of the Future” — a special exhibition — a prototype of the city, built on the basis of high-tech products and services created in Ukraine. The co-founder of the InScience project on science and innovation Anna Orekhova discussed with the organizer of the “City” Dmytro Biryukov about why his exhibition this year is about space, what does participation in it give the start-ups and why non-publicity is part of the culture of Ukrainian projects.
— This year the topic of the exhibition “City of the Future” is space. Quite unexpected. Tell me why did you choose it?
— In fact, we have chosen the theme of space and aviation this year because it has finally matured. Many quality projects related to outer space appeared in Ukraine. This is evident from the events on space organized in Kyiv, Lviv and Dnipro.
The first was the NASA Space Apps Challenge hackathon, supported by NASA. Then there was a well-organized and intense world championship in rocket-model sport in Lviv. And this autumn, the cherry on top appeared — the Odyssey Foundation with its regular meetups, which began to gather incredible people and show their creations — rockets, satellites, balloons, dirigibles. Not to mention the fact that people began to gather in large groups to watch not football, but the launch of the new Falcon from Uncle Elon. In December, it became clear to us that the new generation of Ukrainian conquerors of the sky was ready and it was time to show it at the national level.
But even so, many people doubted and said: “Yes, Ukraine is famous for space and aviation, but now everything is in decline. Where will you get so many projects from? What will you show?” But we just delved into various media, met the key people in the industry, and unexpectedly found 1,000 Ukrainian light planes, a huge agro-drone, a flock of drones able to dance, and a public research institute that has been developing dirigibles for more than 70 years.
— Why don’t we hear about them? Are they non-public?
— In Ukraine, non-publicity is part of the culture. I have been working in Ukrainian high-tech for more than six years and observing this constantly. I’ve been working in a variety of industries — from smart homes to virtual reality, and in each of them maximum 10% of the industry is to the view, while the remaining 90% keep incognito. This phenomenon, in my opinion, is based on a few things.
The first is that nobody is seriously interested in the Ukrainian market. It is unregulated, it is difficult to work on it. Companies from the very beginning are focused on the Western market, and therefore there is no point for them in promoting their production in Ukraine.
The second point — for a long time, it was believed that if you show something cool here, then someone will come and take it away. Therefore, in the Ukrainian market, especially with the production of material objects, people prefer to keep a low profile.
The third moment — people start trolling you. You did something for the first time — and pressure starts immediately because you did something wrong. Therefore, developers either try to polish the product to the ideal, or simply do not show it in Ukraine, because why will they spend their nerves, if it does not increase their profits.
Anna Orekhova (on the right) together with her InScience project partner Olena Skyrta
— But there are also examples to the contrary, isn’t it?
— Before, like most people, I used to compare Ukraine with other countries. Now, for a year and a half I live in Poland and, accordingly, can draw certain conclusions. At first I thought: ok, it seems we somehow underwork here and there. But a good thing is that I know a lot about Ukraine, and even in comparison it has unquestionable advantages.
A month or two ago I began to think that Ukraine should not be compared to other countries. It should be compared with itself. Its present state — with the state a year, two, three years ago. We shouldn’t look at where we haven’t got yet, but look at what we have already achieved. If we compare in this vein, then the picture is completely different, because we have an excellent dynamics of development. The “City”, which has increased more than three times over four years, is a vivid example of this.
Yes, there are problems. When part of the market is in a gray zone, where laws and regulations partially do not work, it is difficult to do business. But what we have achieved now is incredibly cool. At the same time, we bring Ukrainian products to international markets. They attract a lot of attention, due to the excellent combination of price and quality. For example, agro-drone from Kray Technologies, which has no analogues. This is the world’s first serial industrial drone!
The second example is the electric bike from Delfast. Again, nobody in the world made an electric bike, which can drive 500 km on one charge. And guys in Ukraine did and now they are setting up production. The world tells them: “Wow, you are really good!” We should learn to appreciate what we already have now, to observe progress and to support it with our positive attention. Only then will we have more projects, like Kray Technologies and Delfast, when they will have their back covered. Maybe not financially, but at least morally.
— The “City of the Future” is a cool name. But it did not appear at once. Where did it come from?
— Initially, the “City of the Future” was called Smart City Area. That is, a zone dedicated to Smart City technologies. But even in the very first concept it is clearly written that this is a place where people can see how their life will look tomorrow, and we wanted to do it in the form of a small town from the very beginning.
From the first year of the exhibition, we realized that in addition to Smart City visitors are interested in a bunch of other projects that shape our future, and we did not want to stay within the Smart City scope. We thought that if we build a prototype of our Tomorrow, then we should give it an appropriate name – the “City of the Future”. The name was very natural for what we built, and it gave us space for creativity. For the “City” we first of all try to gather as many projects as possible from a wide variety of industries, so that it really looks like a living city.
— Since you started talking about it, how do you choose the projects?
— We want everything to be as interactive as possible in the “City”, so we look at the two parameters. First, what does the company want to show, which product, which technology. And second, how exactly the company can show it. People come to the “City”, foremost, to look and touch. Therefore, we select such projects that their stands are really interesting and interactive. We, on our part, share our experience with the residents, try to help them to make a cool impression on the visitors, not just to be present at the exhibition.
There are usual start-up alleys, where no one controls what you’re showing. You take a table, put a couple of flyers on it, put a screen behind you, put a prototype next to you – and it is good if it’s a functional one – and say: “Here is my startup.” This approach is good for business communication when you immediately agree with an investor or partner to meet after the exhibition and discuss details in personal communication. But such an approach does not work at all to promote high technology.
Here, in the “City”, we collect projects that are understandable to a large number of people and we help them to open up to the public as much as possible. Usually about 20% of chosen projects come from the people who fill the application form on the forum website. Other 80% are found by us manually through mentions in the media or through our personal acquaintances. Then we contact the project teams and ask if they can show something really interesting. If they can, we take them to our “City”.
— I see. And what projects have you chosen for the “City of the Future” this year?
— This year there were a lot of projects. We tried to explore the entire aerospace industry of Ukraine, but then split it into segments. We found key people and famous projects. We invited them to the “City”, and they brought their colleagues. As a result, we got a great mix.
For example, we had a drone show — the first in Ukraine. A bunch of drones in a safe “aviary” showed incredible aerobatics. Synchronously. To the music. Also we had an alley of small rockets. It is unusual in that the rockets are built by young designers. They do not necessarily work in the space industry — rather, the construction of rockets and other aircraft is their hobby. There were several clubs of such designers that together stood on the alley and showed various types of rockets, engines and control technologies.
We also had the Center for aeronautics. As you know, there are planes and helicopters — they travel in the air using aerodynamic force and engines, but besides them there are things that float in the air, because they are lighter than it. For example, dirigibles. We invited to our Center the boys who make stratospheric balloons, raising cargo to high altitudes for research or business purposes. They do not send these balloons into space, but just raise them high to the atmosphere, collect data, carry out research, or share the Internet. We also had dirigibles there. It may seem that their time has passed, but they use an interesting technology that can bring many more benefits to mankind. For example, cargo transportation in dirigibles. If transportation is not urgent, then dirigible is much cheaper and can carry more cargo than airplane.
As I mentioned before, there was a large industrial drone from Kray Technologies in our “City”. A huge machine with a size of 2х5 m with eight airscrews. And this is the first mass production industrial drone in the world! Its main task is to pollinate the fields. The word “industrial” in this case means that it is the first drone in the world, which can process 300-500 hectares of fields in one day. And it is made in Ukraine. Now the company is preparing batches for the USA, Canada, and the production is already set up.
Another interesting aerospace thing was the Ukrainian light plane. It is called A22, from Aeropact company. It is a small brisk plane for two passengers. It is interesting, that Aeropact has now produced more than a thousand planes. Most of them are A22. In Ukraine, there are no more companies that have produced so many planes.
At the junction of art and technology, an exhibition of works by the sculptor and artist from Ternopil Sergii Kuznetsov will take place. He makes “dynamite” sculptures out of electronic and mechanical waste. He can take a pile of rubbish and turn it, for example, into a sculpture of a robot, a space ship or a car. No matter how many times you have seen Sergii’s works, they always mesmerize you.
Also, a steampunk comic called “Freedom” was presented this year. Steampunk is about how the world would develop if all the technologies were based on steam engines and derivative technologies. And the comic is about Ukraine, which in 1917 during the revolution did not lose its position, but remained an independent country. And under the guidance of Petro Skoropadsky, it showed the world how everything really should work — democratically and well. In this comic there is a bunch of original technology: six-wheel cars, aircrafts, dirigibles. Sergii Kuznetsov exhibition was just about the heroes and technology of “Freedom”.
Finally, in the “City” you could walk in space and visit the International Space Station in virtual reality. And not just visit, but also perform a couple of important missions for its repair.
— Can such exhibitions stimulate market development? What examples do you know?
— It is very difficult to give specific numbers. But from what I see, the “City” is a great communication platform, very useful for the development of the ecosystem.
For me, first and foremost, the “City” is a place where cool projects meet, get acquainted with each other and on the basis of their collaboration, something more ambitious is born.
And secondly — it’s a crazy dose of inspiration. This is a place where you can learn about existing projects. You can come and see how powerful the industry in Ukraine is. Many people doubt it simply because they don’t know about it. They didn’t see these projects, they do not understand what is being done and who does it. And the “City of the future” solves this problem.
— From the experience of all years — has the quality of the projects changed? Have they grown? For example, in 2015 you had to work hard to find good projects, and what about this year?
— Firstly, we constantly add new areas, new districts to the “City”. For example, this year we added sculptures and comics. And, of course, everything that flies. In the first “City” there were no space projects at all, but today space is its main theme. And every year we manage to open new horizons. Even I wonder what will we have next year.
The number and quality of projects are growing. It is evident that the ecosystem is developing. Hubs appear. For example, Concepter, which started as a food company, acquired a business accelerator that would represent a pool of startups in the “City”. That is, initially being the ecosystem participants, they became an important part of its infrastructure.
The most obvious indicator of growth is that the “City” becomes larger and larger in size. Now it is three times bigger compared to the first year. But even with the fact that for the anniversary iForum the entire IEC was rented, the space was not enough. Therefore, unfortunately, for the last two weeks we have to reject projects because there is not enough space. And this is despite the size of the “City” exceeds 1,400 m2!
— What problems still remain?
— First of all, it is a problem of communication between projects, communication within the ecosystem.
Science, business, technology. Everyone grows in a limited circle of acquaintances. A kind of cozy bubble. And these bubbles too rarely burst, opening up to the world or at least to their colleagues in the industry.
Media telling about technology, science, business exist and they are developing. This is good. We can see how much they have progressed in terms of the number and quality of publications in one year.
But as a person who is keenly interested in the entire hi-tech industry in Ukraine, I miss the media which would show the whole industry. And preferably, exclusively Ukrainian industry, to understand who surrounds you. Who you work with.
There is still a problem of interest of Ukrainians themselves in Ukrainian products. As I said, people in Ukraine do not appreciate what they have. Maybe because they don’t really know it.
— Could you share the stories of success of the projects you are proud of?
— I will tell you one story that happened before my eyes. In Kiev, lives Maria Izhutova. In 2013, when the consumer level 3D printers appeared, Masha began to deal with them. She threw herself into this business and in five years she had built the largest shop of equipment for 3D printing in Ukraine, 3DPrinter.ua. At the very beginning, all the printers were imported. But she decided that one should make Ukrainian ones. Not only for patriotic reasons, but more for economic ones, because it is really cheaper to make the printers here.
At first, she started a line of simple 3D printers. Plexiglas cases, mechanical parts printed on other printers, and electronics from China.
The design of these printers is not very different from the CNC machine tools made many years before. On the other hand, even such a simple device gives completely different results than the CNC machine for carving something.
So, as I said, she decided to set up production and started with the simplest printers. In the first year of the “City” existence 90% of the printers on the stand were imported and only 10% were Ukrainian. When I asked her for information a couple of weeks ago, 90% of sales were Ukrainian printers. In four years, she managed not only to build a distributed production throughout Ukraine, but also released several printer lines. From simple to very complex.
I can see from the inside, how the project evolves, how much it costs, what efforts it takes. But despite everything, Masha managed to build a company that started with import, but now successfully sells the Ukrainian product. At the same time, she closely cooperates with companies that make plastic in Ukraine. Together, they made a compound import substitution, which everyone is talking about so much.
But most of all I am surprised by Masha’s approach to life and doing business. Masha is a person engaged in a business which she loves and in which she believes. Once in the beginning of our acquaintance, I phoned her in some business and there was a conversation about who does what at night. I sat out nights in the KHackerSpace in Kharkiv at that time, but Masha, as it turned out, disassembled 3D printers at home. She said: “A printer came from China, and, in order to launch it and sell it to the client as soon as possible, we had to disassemble it, replace a couple of strange parts and put the device together again. In parallel, I wrote a review on this printer — so that I didn’t demount it in vain”. I asked: “And you did it all by yourself?” She said: “Well, yes! Don’t I know how to use a screwdriver and a wrench? Four hours — and everything works like a clock!” After that, I did not have words any more. Besides, Masha has a family — a husband and two children, and she manages business. Masha is not an engineer by education. She’s just an interesting, cosmic person. I wish we could gather a lot of such people in one place at the same time. Then, I think, the “City of the future” would not only be a functional prototype, but a real city on the map of Ukraine.
Photo: Maksym Losev