More than 200 technology companies in Lviv have banded together to help Ukraine’s war effort by launching a series of innovative projects, which include bolstering the military’s ability to shoot down Russian missiles and drones.
The Lviv IT Cluster represents the city’s thriving tech industry and for years the association’s main task was to promote the city as a tech hub. But ever since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, the cluster has suddenly become a key part of the resistance in western Ukraine.
The group has funded a range of projects, including building a shelter for refugees, buying bulletproof vests for soldiers, rolling out the Starlink internet service and supplying new computer hardware to strengthen the air defence in the area.
“It’s the best time in our life,” said Stepan Veselovskyi, the cluster’s chief executive, as he sat in the association’s office in Lviv this week. “We have huge motivation. Why? Because we still can operate, we still can do our business and earn money. And we can use our money to fight Russians. And we are not using guns.”
Lviv has become a hotbed for tech talent over the years, employing around 30,000 people. Before the war the IT Cluster had plans to build a US$200-million tech campus to house dozens of businesses and up to 10,000 employees. Work began on the development in 2019, but was put on hold because of the pandemic and then paused again when the war broke out.
While much of the Ukrainian economy has suffered since Russia invaded, the tech sector has remained remarkably strong. That’s largely because most company clients are based in foreign countries and employees can work from almost anywhere. Mr. Veselovskyi said that none of the association’s members have folded since the war began. Moreover, 40 companies that had previously shied away from joining the cluster have recently signed up to strengthen the effort.
The financial health of the industry has allowed members to continue to contribute money to the war initiative. And some of their international clients and partners have also chipped in with donations.
Mr. Veselovskyi’s priorities used to revolve around the new campus, promoting the industry and spearheading a range of educational programs. Now he’s focused exclusively on the war. “We shifted our actives from our normal life to different projects, which helps our country to win this war faster,” he said.
The association started out by supporting the influx of people who arrived from other parts of Ukraine into the Lviv area once the fighting began. The group built a shelter for 1,000 people and provided food and clothing. It’s also spending around US$600,000 to buy 1,000 vests and helmets for the Ukrainian army.
From there the cluster branched out. Mr. Veselovskyi met Elon Musk shortly after the war began, arranging to buy dozens of Mr. Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite internet terminals to bolster communication links.
The cluster has also worked with local police to upgrade the software they use in surveillance cameras and this week it announced a project called Sky to help modernize air defence operations in western Ukraine. The Sky project involves replacing the computer and network equipment at Air Command West, along with screens used in navigation display systems.
That initiative took on new importance on Tuesday when three Russian missiles hit several targets in Lviv and the outlying region. No one was killed but the rockets hit three electric substations and left 250,000 people without power, according to military officials. Power had been restored to most homes by Wednesday.
All of the projects will cost around US$2-million and Mr. Veselovskyi said the funding has come entirely from member companies and donations from tech businesses around the world.
The projects are run by a team of 30 cluster employees, most of whom are young women. They all could have fled the country when the war started because the Ukrainian government only bans adult males from leaving. But they decided to stay put and join the cluster’s effort.
“I won’t leave,” said Julia Nikolaichuk. “I want to live in Lviv. I adore this city. I want to live here.”
Oksana Korin was in Portugal when the war started but she couldn’t stay away for long. “When I was there I had really huge anxiety. I was crying all day long checking news,” she said. She returned and rejoined her work on the cluster’s education programs. At first she didn’t see the point in the education service, which works with schools and universities, “because there is war and people are dying constantly.”
But the programs have been adapted to the new reality. “We decided it’s time to do this education project because kids want to hear something except war,” said Ms. Korin. She also sees her role as promoting tech opportunities in Ukraine in order to prevent a potential brain drain. “We want to show them that they have a future in Ukraine in tech,” she said.
There have been difficulties. The cluster runs a loyalty program with businesses across the city, which provides discounts to tech workers. It used to have around 1,200 business partners but 300 have suspended operations because of the war and a further 200 have stopped participating. “For businesses it’s very hard,” said Natalia Heras, who works on the loyalty service.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Veselovskyi plans to press on and the IT Cluster is already coming up with new projects, including a mental-health centre for displaced people.
“This war has been continuing for centuries between Ukraine and Russia and we believe that now we will put the end to all this situation,” he said. “I’m happy that I will be alive when this will happen. And my daughter will live in a free country without these crazy Russians.”
The Globe and Mail, May 4, 2022