Ukrainian in London: how my business is saving lives back home

Principal of UK-Ukraine TechExchange, Andriy Dovbenko shares why becoming part of the UK tech ecosystem is vital to his country’s war effort.

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Life as a Ukrainian entrepreneur and investor changed quickly in 2022. This past month marks two years since my country was invaded, triggering a brutal and punishing conflict that has left Ukraine facing a spiraling reconstruction bill of over $1 trillion and our soldiers fighting for their lives.

Bridging the gap

Having lived in London with my young family since 2018 my own situation differed from my entrepreneurial friends at home, but I saw a way I could help.

It quickly became apparent that innovation holds the key to Ukraine's defence and ultimate rebirth. We have all read about the role low-cost drones have played in this war, but that is only part of it. Speaking to the military personnel and startup founders in Ukraine, it was clear they were missing crucial elements that UK political, tech, business and investor communities were willing to supply. For new technology to work optimally it needs to be tested in the harshest environments with feedback from end users. Innovative companies need collaborative partnerships to improve their products – from component parts to the use of adjacent technologies, for example a demining company using AI or even SpaceTech to do what it does at a bigger scale. And, critically, it requires funding and access to pools of capital. I knew providing a bridge between the UK and Ukraine to foster this work could turn the tide of the war and save lives back home.

DefenceTech and AgriTech are the two sectors where innovation could make a very real difference. Today, as well as survival on the battlefield, Ukraine faces the challenge of making agricultural land safe and fertile once more. Land mass the size of Florida is now littered with mines, meaning one wrong step could lead to death or dismemberment. The soil in which these devices sit is at risk of long-term contamination. With agriculture accounting for 41% of Ukraine’s total exports and 14% of its employment, the demining of this land is critical.

The power of connection

In the past year I have sought to make valuable connections in the UK tech scene. In spite of a background in the legal profession, I've networked continuously – from Sifted Summit to TechUK’s Defence Research and Technology Forum. I’ve attended the London Stock Exchange for the working group of financial services industry body TheCityUK to discuss the development of a financial centre in Ukraine. I was pleased to sponsor the launch event of the UK government-backed UK-Ukraine TechBridge – a partnership with Ukraine Ministry of Digital Transformation and Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There have been cybersecurity breakfasts, the WIRED Impact summit, AI Fringe’s AI and National Security Symposium, and an AgriFood event in Cambridge that looked at the use of autonomous robots, drones and sensor data to advance the agricultural sector. More recently I attended a launch event for the forthcoming Cambridge Tech Week. Each one feeds my thirst for knowledge, my curiosity for what might be possible, and my network of contacts who can support my vision.

Frontline defence

It has enabled me to create a non-profit programme TechExchange, I have also met with many startups with technology that could be used on the front lines. My plan is to provide a platform to the startups who have the innovation to make a difference. For example, we are now working with Ukrainian tech companies Kvertus and Skyeton. Kvertus develops and manufactures electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems, actively countering the threat of Russian drones. Skyeton has manufactured unmanned aerial systems (UAS) since 2014 and provides accurate aerial data of vast, remote areas for precise ground intervention, remaining in flight for longer and able to travel further than similar technologies.

For Ukrainian startups like this I want to help build their profile and introduce them to investors here in the UK’s ecosystem. And for UK startups I want to see new technologies make it to the  Ukrainian frontline. The ability and opportunity to test these technologies in live environments where instant feedback will inevitably lead to further innovation and greater commercial viability, thus benefiting both parties, is a key part of our work.

Final thoughts

It all seems a world away from being a young Ukrainian national, freshly graduated in Law and on my first trip to London. I wandered down Portobello Market and had my wallet stolen. It was 2006 and my introduction to one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities was not one you’d expect to develop into a deep connection with. Now it is my home. While my first experience was having something taken away – it is now giving so much more back to me and my country.

Andriy Dovbenko - Principal of UK-Ukraine TechExchange

Andriy Dovbenko is a Ukrainian-born and UK-based early-stage investor focused on helping tech startups in defence and agriculture - two sectors crucial to Ukraine - accelerate their commercial potential. He hopes to help Ukrainian startups achieve global impact, initially through access to the UK market while also discovering UK tech startups offering solutions that may benefit Ukraine.

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