Diane Francis: Turning Ukraine from ‘the world’s bread basket to the world’s brain basket’

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Written by Diane Francis
Source: Financial Post

The war between Moscow and Ukraine grinds on in the east, but the rest of the gigantic country is on the move. The people of Ukraine supported the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 that overthrew a corrupt leader, and in the past two years have turned their energy toward reforms in Parliament as well as to building their economy through innovation and entrepreneurship, notably in technology.

In June, the Canadian government is hosting a major conference in Toronto that will showcase Ukrainian products and businesses in order to connect them with high-level Canadian corporations and businessmen. The conference is timely because we are on the eve of completion of the Canada and Ukraine Free Trade Agreement, approved in principle last summer.

We want to turn the country from the world’s bread basket to the world’s brain basket

The resilience of Ukrainians is awe-inspiring, given the dislocation of 1.5 million from the war-torn east, and the country is moving quickly into the emerging economies of the future, thanks to its highly motivated and educated young people.

Three recent and significant deals have turned the tech world’s attention toward Ukraine. In September, Snapchat paid US$150 million to buy a two-year-old Ukrainian startup in Odesa called Looksery and, just before that, Google paid US$45 million for facial recognition company Viewdle. Then in November, financier George Soros acquired a stake in Ciklum Holding Limited in Kyiv, an IT outsourcing company with 2,500 software engineers, architects and technologists.

It’s a very dynamic company in an interdustry that represents the future of Ukraine,” Soros said at the time.

There are roughly 2,000 significant startups in the country, built on successes in the past by Ukrainian tech giants such as Grammarly, an online writing enhancement software, or Paymentwall, an online platform selling digital goods and services. They, plus 100 multinationals, have large-scale research and development operations in Ukraine including Siemens, Samsung, Oracle, Cisco, SoftServe, Procter & Gamble and Bioclinica.

We want to turn the country from the world’s bread basket to the world’s brain basket,” said Yevgen Sysoyev, managing partner of  AVentures Capital in Kyiv.

The goal by this industry is to double — to 200,000 — the number of IT professionals with proficiency in English through collaboration with governments, companies and universities. Ukraine is the biggest pool of IT talent and export success throughout in Central and Eastern Europe.

Another successful entrepreneur is Andrew Pavliv, a friend I met in Silicon Valley three years ago, whose company N-iX employs hundreds of world-class software developers who work on projects around the world through its head office in Lviv and branch operations in Stockholm and Sofia.

We are very proud of our company and projects, and young Ukrainians are realizing that technology and entrepreneurship are the fields to enter for a bright future,” he said.

Another supporter of Ukraine’s IT and other sectors has been Canadian-Ukrainian investor Lenna Koszarny, CEO of private equity firm Horizon Capital in Kyiv with US$600 million under management. “The headlines look bad, but this is an exciting time for entrepreneurs. We are bullish about Ukraine,” she said.

She will be a panelist at the Toronto conference along with cabinet ministers from Ukraine, business leaders from both countries, entrepreneurs and bankers.

She is a ranking member of Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora, the world’s largest, which numbers several million. They have made huge contributions to Canada over several generations. For instance, the current Minister of International Trade, Chrystia Freeland, is Ukrainian-Canadian as are other luminaries in all walks of life including the late governor general of Canada Ray Hnatyshyn, sports celebrity Wayne Gretzky and many notable business tycoons.

These links were behind the fact that Canada was the first nation to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and has been a steadfast ally as Ukraine’s 45 million people gradually free themselves from Kremlin control with the help of the European Union.

Ukraine is twice the size of Germany with the world’s third-most-educated population, the country is poised to become an economic powerhouse. Since the Revolution, Ukraine’s finances, taxes and economic condition have improved under the steady hand of the IMF. Estimates are that this year its economy will grow by 2.4 per cent and increase steadily.

The conference, sponsored in partnership with the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce and Conference Board of Canada, will feature success stories and products in a cool and interesting trade show venue. Panel discussions by officials and economic players will discuss opportunities and include breakout sessions on opportunities in four sectors: energy, agriculture, technology and infrastructure.

 

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