The war in Ukraine extends beyond the front lines. While soldiers risk their lives on battlefields, the survivors defend the home front – and the economy.
The conflict has devastated businesses, but the tech ecosystem has shone amid the gloom. In the first quarter of this year, the industry generated a record $2 billion in export services. IT Arena 2022an annual conference in the city of Lviv, showed the vital role of the sector in the war – and in the peace that will follow.
The event is the brainchild of Lviv IT clustera community of companies, authorities and universities that is turning the local region into the technical center of Eastern Europe.
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This year’s edition faced unprecedented challenges. The organizers had to ensure the safety of each participant, adapt the format of the event to the war situation and gather international speakers in a country under invasion. Overcoming these obstacles provided further evidence of Ukraine’s strengths.
“Conferences like this show that we are truly resilient,” said Stepan Veselovskyi, CEO of Lviv IT Cluster. “Even during a war, we can host an exciting tech event, bring startups here and attract investment.”
To ensure a safe and successful event, IT Arena has been reduced to 1,000 attendees this year. There were also fewer entries for the illustrious Startup Competition.
Nevertheless, the contenders showed the power of technology in difficult times, with their focus on real problems. Notably, five of the ten finalists focused on health technology services.
Some of the solutions shown are already saving lives. DonorUAwhich provides an automated blood donation system, has put 7,000 people in contact with donors.
It’s not just lives that the teams save. Another app, Palianytsia, was created to promote the Ukrainian language. According to the founders, language is a matter of national security.
The event kicked off with the semifinals of the startup competitions.
Olga Diachuk, the COO of Mosqitter, who won the top prize last year, explained the impact the competition can have. Despite the war, the company has generated revenue, raised investments, launched a sales force and even developed a new product line.
“Difficulty presents opportunities and opportunities for growth,” Diachuk said. “It shows you who you really are, what you’re made of and how smart you are.”
Diachuk is one of several women who have held leadership positions at tech companies since most men became conscripted.
Another is Iryna Savytska, who runs a blockchain-based startup with her husband. While he continued to fight, she sought safety for their children. First in Italy, where she had flashbacks from the fireworks, and then in Silicon Valley to study at Draper University’s renowned entrepreneurship program.
Savytska’s company, Bank of memories, preserves digital assets for legacy. But her focus at IT Arena is on providing mentorship for the startups present.
“This event shows that, despite the war, people are coming to support the industry,” she said.
A change of scenery
After the semifinals of the competition, the event shifted to the opulent setting of the Lviv National Opera – a wonderful reminder of Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage.
The venue hosted a varied array of sessions over the next two days. Speakers included Haluk Bayraktar, CEO of Turkish UAV giant Baykar, Illia Ponomarenko, an award-winning defense reporter with the Kiev Independent, and Victor Zhora, deputy chairman of Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection. The innovations they discussed were further proof that necessity is the mother of invention.
While many conversations focused on military technology, there was also room on the schedule for regular IT matters.
Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation, believes the event will have a powerful impact.
“We see IT Arena as a great communication platform for a tech company, the community and the government,” he said. “All stakeholders can discuss current challenges and come up with solutions together. Without dialogue, it would be difficult to maintain the current pace of industry development at such a difficult time.”
The government has good reasons to support the growing sector. One of the main goals of the Zelenskyy administration is to increase the industry’s share of the country’s GDP from its current 4% to 10% by 2024. IT Arena will boost those goals.
The conference concluded with the announcement of the winner of the Startup Competition: WRAP, an app that automates video production flows. The team took home a $20,000 prize.
“Our victory is first and foremost a sign of great moral support,” said Stephen Skoropadsky, Chief Product Officer at WRAP.
“It has certainly charged us positively for the coming year. In addition, we have already met some cool investors and talked to representatives of venture funds and angels. We plan to use the grant money for legal paperwork, development and ongoing subscriptions.”
The runner-up of the competition was Knopka, which supplies an advanced patient monitoring system for hospitals. Third place went to Nanit Robotics, a developer of edtech solutions for children and adults in STEM.
Despite an 11 p.m. curfew, there was still time for fun. The event included a surprise concert by Antytila, a Ukrainian band that recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran.
Taras Topolia, the lead singer of Antytila, admitted he was a little nervous: this was his first time on stage since the February invasion.
Some attendees expressed a sense of “survivor guilt,” but Topolia gave compelling reason to enjoy the moment. He remembered a mythical story about Winston Churchill. At the height of World War II, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain was asked to cut back on art. His answer was clear: “What are we fighting for?”
The story may be apocryphal, but the sentiment is real. It was another reminder of the importance of IT Arena – and the strength of the Ukrainian technology sector as it comes together.
In 2023, the event will return for its 10th anniversary. The congregation hopes to have much more to celebrate by then.