Innovation in a Conflict Zone Featuring Irina Afonina

For the past two years, Ukraine has experienced massive conflict in its eastern-most regions, particularly in Luhansk. Though many have been forced to leave, one inspiring technology entrepreneur has remained despite the hardship.

In this special edition of CRDF Global’s blog, I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the grantees of our Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP), Irina Afonina. Listen as Irina and I discuss what it is like to pursue innovation in a conflict zone, what the future holds for Ukraine, and how science and innovation can make the world a better place.
Nick King: Alright, awesome. Well, I guess to get started, one of the things that is really interesting about your story is the fact that you’re in Luhansk. You’re in a region of Ukraine that has seen lots of conflict between Ukraine and Russia. To hit the ground running, can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing there and how that affects some of the work that you do in entrepreneurship and innovation?
Irina Afonina: Well, so actually, most of the entrepreneurs, as well as teachers and students, most of them were displaced from Luhansk to other regions of Ukraine in order to continue their businesses, their activities, and their startups. Everybody understands that there is, to be honest, no future in the occupied territories. That’s why people were forced to go and to leave their homes and be displaced to other parts of Ukraine. For example, for the University where I work, it is not an exception to the rule, and because of the current conflict the East Ukrainian University was also displaced and entrepreneurs as well. Of course, all those people and universities, they came up with a number of problems at their new places. That was from the very beginning, and what we have now is a situation that is a little bit calmer and the stress is not as high as it was before, and we will try to go further. They have to go further.
NK: So you said that a lot of people have obviously left many of the regions where there is conflict, because like you said, the future seems bleak for people there. What is interesting about you, is that you didn’t do that. You stayed in Luhansk and decided, “Hey, this is where I want to start up my venture.” Could you tell us a little bit about the venture that you have, your startup and what it is, and how you got involved with CRDF Global and the STEP program?
IA: Ok, it’s an interesting question – thank you very much. We started our business around 2006, and we decided to start with the recycling of waste, and we were faced with this problem of time, because you know that the clean tech industry in Ukraine is weak, and there was a moment, not only in our region, but in the whole of Ukraine, when it began to be swallowed up by waste. Then we decided to start our own business in this direction. Our problem was to find prominent support not only in terms of finance but in terms of technical support. One of my colleagues was from the Kharkiv region and provided me in 2014 with a meeting in Kiev with CRDF Global. That was my challenge: to meet with CRDF and to reconsider my project in terms of innovation and commercialization. Of course our project started before the conflict, but we faced such kinds of problems like value proposition, like business models, and in terms of entrepreneurship in general. CRDF Global gave an excellent opportunity just to look out project like a new toy, to look at it again based on experience and all that kind of knowledge that we got during our participation in CRDF Global’s STEP program. Before the conflict, we ran our business in our own perception. After that, we understood that as business people we were doing some things wrong. We don’t take into consideration the share of the market. We don’t take into consideration the clean tech industry, not only in Ukraine but in the whole world, where such kinds of businesses don’t stay in one place, they go further, and they develop themselves.
NK: There’s obviously a lot of factors that make it hard to work in Luhansk. I’m curious. There are issues of physical safety of economic safety, all these things, but what’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced trying to make this innovation that you have work in a conflict zone, essentially?
IA: Actually, the biggest challenge is the lack of engineering equipment, because all of our equipment was in Luhansk. We didn’t have the ability to just replace it. So now-a-days we have to start our project, our business, let me say from the zero point. Now of course, we are faced with such problems of financing to purchase this equipment and financing for construction, financing for documentation – all these kinds of things. We are not the only one faced with these problems. Most entrepreneurs face it as well, especially if you are involved with the clean tech industry.
NK: You could have left and decided to move your venture elsewhere, but why specifically did you say “no, I’m going to stay in Luhansk. I’m going to try and make this work despite the conflict.” What was the driving force there for you?
IA: You know, one of the driving forces is that there were all my relatives. They are adults or old people, and some of them are not able to go to another place. They are very devoted to the land and the region where they have been living for nearly all of their lives. For them, it’s not really easy to change, and to be displaced changes their whole lifestyle, so we have to be present there.
NK: One of the things, if you know anything about CRDF Global, which you do because you’ve done lots of work with us, we view science and innovation as something that can bridge people together. No matter the circumstances, science and innovation are things in the world that people can always get behind. Science really is a universal language. Innovation is really a universal language. The last time that you were in DC, the last time we talked, you had with you Ivan Kulchitsky, and you all talked about using innovation and the mentorship skills that you learned in the STEP program to bridge Eastern and Western Ukraine. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about the things that you all discussed and how innovation can help heal a country that is in conflict.
IA: Ok, of course, I am in touch with Ivan, and it doesn’t matter whether there is conflict. I’d like to make a short remark. The main problems for Ukrainian science are the shortage of government funding and orders from manufacturers. And there is a significant lack of large scientific centers affiliated with manufacturing enterprises in Ukraine. It builds a great barrier for development and commercialization of innovative and applied technologies. There is also research ready to come out of laboratories and research reports cannot be presented in a convenient form for investors; technology transfer infrastructure in Ukraine is also rather weak. That’s why we are in touch with Ivan, to exchange the opinions in this area because the eastern part of Ukraine is mostly technical part. In terms of chemical manufacturing, in terms of chemical plants, some manufacturing enterprises, so that’s why these exchanges between the manufacturers and the innovators are very useful to my mind, and in the future we hope that there will be more collaboration.
NK: I’m curious, though. You went through the STEP program with Ivan. What things did you learn from the STEP program that you were able to take back and implement in Ukraine. And for those who don’t know, the STEP program is the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship program.
IA: Thank you Nick for the question. So, I will answer it with great pleasure. First of all, our people are really quite well educated people. But the problem is we are theoretically well-prepared, Practically, we can’t do anything. Why? The main question for these scientists and innovators is how to do. So, STEP is the best instrument to help all of those people by answering their questions: “How do I do it? Who are my clients? What is my valuation? What kind of business model will I use? Is my business B2C or B2B?” All of these kinds of questions about access to the market. Brilliant access to speak in one language even with those people who are already in business or this sphere, and you are on the same level in terms of negotiation, and you have access to an ecosystem, which is also very important and necessary for research or a startup or a beginner in terms of business, or if you are a freshman in entrepreneurship, whatever it is. But for me, that is the main idea in my mind. What I have to share with my colleagues, and just to give them an opportunity to broaden their knowledge and to experience what implementing all this knowledge in a practical way is very important in my mind. Again, thanks to CRDF Global for the opportunity provide all of this knowledge and expertise and information. It’s an opportunity for everyone who is interested in business and would like to be involved in entrepreneurship as well.
NK: So you mentioned that one of things that you are happy about is that you get to take the knowledge and information that you gained through the STEP program bring that back to Ukraine to help out others that you get to interact with. One of the things that we haven’t really touched on is that you are a certified mentor through the STEP program. You’ve gone through the online portion, and now you are mentoring other people going through program. Having been somebody who has gone through the STEP program, but is also hitting the mentorship side of this, can you talk about the two sides? What it’s like to be an innovator, an entrepreneur who’s trying to come up with an idea vs being a mentor? How do those two work together?
IA: Actually, CRDF Global made a promotion for another course of STEP and is inviting researchers and innovators to participate in STEP 2016, and I am invited as a mentor to participate in this course as well. For me, as a mentor, it’s also a challenge, because I promoted CRDF Global on our forums and seminars and the university when I was invited to different kind of business forums. And all people, they are really excited to participate in STEP, because a lot of questions are arising for businessmen and entrepreneurs, because they have their own experience, but they are not quite aware of commercialization, and there is a quite a difference. It is my target to support all of these kinds of people and to be a member of this program. Again, I should repeat that it is a great challenge, because, first of all, it’s a great responsibility. Secondly, my trip to the USA gave me a good opportunity to reconsider the way of thinking in terms of presenting the project and pitching the project. Now, I even reconsider my own project and my own business in terms of innovation and in terms of presenting the project and the market itself. You know the Ukrainian people, they are mostly concentrated on the project, not on the business, not on the market, let me say development in the wider sense. As a mentor I’d like to strengthen them and to provide them with these instruments to go further and to be on a good level of their projects.
NK: Working as a mentor, you’re mentoring other innovators. You’re helping them get ideas off the ground. You’re helping them with knowledge necessary to not just make them successful, but to make Ukraine successful. Interacting with these individuals, what does the future of Ukraine look like?
IA: Well, quite an interesting question. So, the forecast is that Ukraine has to be integrated into the global world, and if Ukraine would like to be integrated, it will have to change itself – its way of thinking, its way of perception of the global world, and Ukraine should take all of the fundamental science, all the fundamental experience of the nation and pass the bridge into innovation and into technology, in terms of commercialization. With that, Ukraine will survive and will become one of the powerful countries in Europe. I don’t want to speak about the political situation in Ukraine, of course there are lots of problems, but actually it doesn’t matter whether you are in Africa or in Ukraine, if you are a scientist or innovator, and if you perceive yourself as part of a global world, then you will be perceived everywhere, because you are an experienced person in terms of science and innovation, so I think that this is the most important idea. To be a part of the world and to work together is a very challenging part of any project for any innovator. I think that what CRDF Global is doing is building such bridges between countries – not only in terms of innovation, but also in terms of – it is a bridge between the nations, I think. Working together, that is the collaboration, that is the most important part, because to be a part of all these large ecosystems and large communities, so you will be satisfied. When you have a business and don’t have satisfaction out of it, that’s not a positive moment. You have to do somethings, not only for money, but also for satisfaction, you know? So innovation and business and entrepreneurship is like theater. When you play your part and then you have applause from the audience that is the great satisfaction, so the same story is in innovation. If you do something for the global market, for the global world, and then you have some satisfaction as somebody uses your technology. That is the most positive moment. NK: I think you’ve rounded this conversation out very nicely. You’re exactly right. We live in a world where the challenges that we face are increasingly global. They affect everybody. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the United States and you’re in Ukraine and there’s another person that’s in India or South Africa. We are living in a world where the challenges that we face touch everyone everywhere, and it’s only going to continue with that trend, so it’s super important that scientists and innovators are able to go across borders and work with each other and that countries don’t go in alone, but that they can partner with other countries to do things together. That’s definitely the message that we love to hear and that the rest of the world needs to hear, too. Irina thank you so much for speaking with me. We had such a good time the last time you were here I thought, “I have to interview her again.” So, thank you again for speaking with me. I appreciate it and wish you all the best as you continue to pursue your innovation in Ukraine.
IA: Thank you very much.