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Ukraine has one of the largest numbers of highly qualified programmers in the world. Stack Overflow ranked the country in the top 10 European countries, with the number of professional developers overall at 172,000.
Over the past five years, the critical mass of these professionals has reached a tipping point, with Ukraine becoming a hotbed of startups of its own. However, a shortage of investment, support, and knowledge of how to scale, has created a pressure cooker of opportunities bottled in Ukraine.
Native Ukrainian David Gilgur, founder of Vimes Consulting, has made it his mission is to unlock the potential of the Ukraine startup scene, and last year launched the first British Ukrainian startup accelerator, Blue Lake, with the aim of helping Ukrainian startups transform into world class companies.
Gilgur first arrived in the U.K. at the age of 14, sent by his parents to study in an orthodox Jewish school. He recalls: “The 1990s were a rough time in the former USSR and many Jewish parents were sending their children abroad to missionary style programs in places like Israel and Canada. When they had the opportunity to send me to the U.K. they didn’t hesitate.”
He studied finance and economics at Manchester University and after graduating joined Bloomberg where he worked for seven years, initially in in the economics analytics department. He went on to look after commercial agreements for the data feeds for some of the largest investment banks in the world.
But after the financial crisis of 2008, the City was no longer such a glamorous place to work. “I was fairly secure in my job, but the finance sector, generally, had lost its appeal,” says Gilgur. “At Bloomberg I was part of an amazing team, yet I felt that I wanted to do something that positively impacted the real world.”
In 2012 he left Bloomberg and spent a few months teaching in Peru. On his return to the U.K. he had to rethink his next career move. With his native Ukraine never far from his mind, he launched Vimes Consulting, with the aim of bolstering international trade and investment deals between the U.K. and Ukraine.
“Ukraine was still relatively unknown and with the ongoing discussions of free trade between Ukraine and the EU it was clear there was an opportunity to create a bridge between the Ukraine and the U.K.,” says Gilgur. Vimes quickly evolved into a broad-spectrum consultancy, growing from a one-man shop, to two small offices in Kiev and London and a client base of SMEs based mainly in the Ukraine and the U.K.
He recalls: “We often found ourselves at some old Soviet-style factory in a remote Ukrainian region, explaining to a director who’d spent all his life working with Russia, that the U.K. markets were not quite the same, while a statue of Lenin loomed large in the background.”
Anyone who had worked with the Ukraine over the previous five years couldn’t fail to have noticed the buzz surrounding the country’s IT scene. “Seemingly every coffee shop swarmed with people and their laptops, intensely discussing their startups,” says Gilgur. “At the same time at Vimes we were getting more and more requests from U.K.-based VCs curious about Ukrainian startups.”
In 2015 Vimes gathered a group of VCs with an interest in Ukraine in a London office, while Ukrainian startups pitched to them over a precarious Skype connection. With significant interest from both sides, this evolved into biannual, London-based roadshows where Ukrainian startups travelled to pitch to U.K. early-stage investors.
These events highlighted some key issues. The Ukrainian startup scene was growing rapidly and producing some promising teams, but the country still suffered from a low profile. And while Ukrainian startup founders were technically proficient, imaginative and hardworking, they lacked significant knowledge and experience, especially when it came to international market entry and fundraising.
All of this had been taking place against the backdrop of the Ukrainian Revolution, which had culminated in the overthrow of the Ukrainian Government. “In the months following hostilities, the Russian market had become restricted for many Ukrainian businesses,” says Gilgur. ‘Linking European and Ukrainian markets overnight became the highest priority for many firms, including our own services.”
In the summer of 2019 Gilgur and Lyubov Guk, one of the first people to join the Vimes team, became partners in the newly launched Blue Lake accelerator. The 12-week program provides an initial investment of between £15,0000 ($19,000) and £30,000 ($39,000), and startup support that includes office space, workshops, and networking. At the end of the program the startups present at the Blue Lake Demo Day in London and Kiev to an audience of early-stage investors.
To date 17 startups have joined the program, some standout businesses among them, including edtech startups VIRE, a VR-based educational platform, and ChoiZY which combines traditional career guidance with AI to help school kids get a better understanding of what a given profession entails. The goal is to have 30 Ukrainian startups per year at the Blue Lake Accelerator in London.
“In the Ukraine, great ideas and a lot of hard work can go to waste as founders find it hard to see the true potential of their products,” says Gilgur. “There are local startup accelerators in Ukraine’s three largest cities, but few offer any funding or even a structured support program. Local VC funds are few and far between.”
Blue Lake provides a valuable opportunity for Ukraine’s most promising internationally-focused startups, and Gilgur has laid out ambitious plans for helping them in 2020. He says: “Our goal is to finish our fundraising round, turn Blue Lake London into a true hub for emerging market startups, and expand our scouting team presence in the Ukraine by opening up a scouting office in Belarus.”