How can a Ukrainian startup not lose investments and enter new markets?


I started to be interested in innovations more than 10 years ago, when there were not many events promoting technologies and entrepreneurship. At the same time, I was already interested in 3D printing and robotics, so I gradually delved into it.


Jane Klepa

Jane Klepa is an entrepreneur, director of partnerships and innovations at SET University and executive director of 1991 Accelerator, mentor, and speaker with 10 years of experience in the field of technology. Jane spoke about the state of the Ukrainian startup market, shared cases of effective teams, and her own insights that will help preserve the business.

The interaction of startups, corporations, and the public sector has the most powerful effect on the development of all parties

Later, I assembled a team with which I organized large-scale international conferences in Ukraine and abroad, mainly in the B2B sector - for large companies and their employees.

Then I realized that many emerging young projects needed financial assistance and mentoring. Therefore, within the framework of large conferences, I started testing a platform called Speed dealing: it had the same principle as Speed dating but between founders and investors so that the latter could give feedback to startups and cooperate in the future.

The format was quite successful, and I finally realized that I want to direct my activities to support young teams that would work in synergistic tripartite cooperation that takes into account the interests of all participants: big business, the public sector as a regulator, and startup innovators.

So in 2017, I headed it 1991 Open Data Incubator (now 1991 Accelerator), where we developed projects without teams (1-3 people) at the idea stage. We were at the very origins because, at that time, there were almost no incubators and accelerators in Ukraine.

Startups are always about innovation

Innovation is not necessarily an invention from scratch, and I often remind accelerator entrepreneurs of this. Innovation is also about optimization: if one project solves a specific problem better than another, using a more efficient method, this is also an innovation. If it is possible to optimize some processes or, say, the speed of measurement in the context of technology, this is also an innovation. This distinguishes a startup: this innovative component and a bunch of unknowns. Therefore, a startup starts with testing hypotheses and validating ideas.

My mission is to work with Ukrainian founders

When I started working with startups, I lived in 3 countries and 5 cities. It may sound romantic, but in reality, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Of course, this crazy pace gave me a valuable background, which I am very grateful for, but it was extremely difficult. So I decided to devote myself fully to Ukrainian products and services and help them receive investments abroad. Currently, the accelerator community includes over 200 startups from all over Ukraine.

The ability to help yourself first and then help others is an important element of leadership

At the end of 2021, within the team, of course, we discussed the possibility of a full-scale invasion, but most simply did not believe this could happen. At the same time, we managed to get together quickly, and in April, we fully resumed operational activities. Everything was complicated by the fact that part of 1991 was from Mariupol. We even had a startup development center there. So we helped the teams leave, looked for shelter, and supported them in every way.

A business leader needs to think about himself first to find resources and motivation to move forward. After all, you cannot motivate a team if you aren’t at your best. Routine saved me: even a simple act of cleaning kept me in tune. Although you understand that perhaps no one will need it because your house can be destroyed at any moment. But you keep going, and that gives you strength. My family supported me a lot. Breathing exercises and sports also helped.

Investors demand guarantees, which Ukraine can barely provide

Many Ukrainian startups now risk losing funding if the team remains in Ukraine. Therefore, at least the C-level of the team partially leaves. Investors do not try to change the business in general, but they demand guarantees that it will be able to work. Because people are the main reason they give money. And people should be safe. At the same time, EU countries, Israel and Britain offer relocation and assistance programs for small businesses with travel and accommodation expenses. They also introduce Ukrainians to the local ecosystem. Mainly, such programs are created by the commercial sector - for example, investment funds and technology parks. They are not doing this to take away intellectual resources from the country, but to help Ukrainian businesses survive. Under such conditions, taxes are paid to Ukraine.

There is no talent outflow in Ukraine. Most want to return home

In May, we launched the 1991 Reload, which brings together those who can help startups during the war with those who need that support now.

This program was transformed to meet the needs of startups that remained in Ukraine. First, we focused on startups from the affected territories (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa regions) to help with mentoring and facilitate their entry not only into the Ukrainian but also the international market. This idea arose out of necessity: we started talking to graduates of the 1991 Accelerator and realized that many entrepreneurs remain in the country and need our support. We started it in the spring, the program ran all summer, and the first group of entrepreneurs graduated in September.

One of the most interesting 1991 Reload projects for me is the Handstree. It’s an impact platform for social business assistance. The project's founders are from Odesa, but at one time, they fell in love with Mariupol and decided to move. With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, they went abroad, got into the international accelerator, and are now developing in Germany.

There is also an insanely cool team from Kharkiv – Allzap. This is a marketplace that selects auto parts. Of course, logistically, they suffered significantly. But now the team works on the Polish market and is developing rapidly.

There are two options: accept the challenge and transform or close the project

I see the following trend: after the full-scale invasion, all Ukrainian startups were divided into those that went out of business, and those who took this situation as a challenge, and they were ready for new ideas, forms, and transformations. Ready to courage.

Now, the ones who were open to this challenge are able to conquer new countries and enter new markets every month. Yes, scaling was in their plans. But they managed to understand that you either got to work like crazy right now, or nothing would happen. And this is meanwhile, in many projects, members of the team or even one of the co-founders was in the Armed Forces. It's phenomenal.

Some are at the " survival " stage due to their fault because they cannot quickly rebuild the processes and business model or make a pivot (change the course of the startup's development if the idea did not take off or stopped bringing profit).

At the same time, some projects suffered due to certain insurmountable conditions. For example, in the last 5 years, the topic of open data has been developing a lot in Ukraine. And now, all the businesses and organizations that used them have simply shut down because all state databases are closed for security reasons. Only some of the most successful startups that used API can work.

Here are some tips that I would give to Ukrainian startups:

  1. Take care of your and your people’s mental health. If the team is resourceful, the business will also thrive.
  2. Stop being afraid. Everything previously associated with fear and risks has simply ceased to exist for us now. Test a new market, a new audience, a new product line.
  3. Don't wait. Do everything at once. Don’t waste too much analyzing. Although I am a spreadsheet person, I love numbers and consider analytics to be extremely important, but I am sure the time loss can be fatal. It may be too late when you finally make the "perfect" product.
  4. Change. It is honest to admit that you have to carry on “as is,” albeit imperfectly. Or just shut down.

The last option is actually not as dramatic as it might seem at first glance. For example, the FoodEx service of Vitaly Savchenko was widespread in Ukraine. But he admitted that in Ukraine, from the point of view of the unit economy, even in peacetime, the project did not bring the expected results. And Vitaly closed it. This openness and honesty are crucial for startups. If the team is cool experts, they will make another, better product. Or they will be a valuable resource for other companies.

Another example. One of the first graduates of the 1991 Open Data Incubator was the startup Ecoisme – a smart system for tracking energy consumption in the house. The guys raised significant investments, scaled up, and tested the markets of the UAE and the USA, but at one point, they admitted that they were going bankrupt and closed the project. Yes, it's a tough decision. However, all three co-founders now work at large technology companies and develop innovations and products there. From the startup point of view, this is a failure, but these people are an asset to the technology market.

The perception of competition has changed a lot

Another factor that has a good effect on the Ukrainian market is support and collaboration. Products and services combine, create new projects, or share data with each other, helping to develop.

We also have many development plans. First of all, we want to strengthen our online presence. Mini-spoiler: soon, we will gather the entire technological Ukrainian and Central European startup community and hold an offline event in Warsaw. This will be the first offline event of the 1991 Accelerator abroad: a conference and a kind of hackathon. So we are also scaling.

Apart from that, we want to develop international startup cooperation. We used to work with foreign startups before. We had projects with Germany and made joint Ukrainian-German programs. Now, we want to cover Central and Eastern Europe - this will be our first step towards full-fledged international programs.

As for SET University, we are launching a master's program and starting a blockchain week - an educational event with activities for startups, because we decided to focus on cyber security. This is our plan until spring.