Reviving the IT ecosystem of East Ukraine: Eva Belchenko on the Mariupol IT cluster and the Startup Development Center 1991 Mariupol

When we met with Eva Belchenko, we immediately sensed her long-lasting love for her hometown, and her wish to change Mariupol for the better. Her ambitions for initiating change in East Ukraine’s society and economy emerged at a time when the region started experiencing an outflow of highly qualified professionals. Belchenko was tempted to move too, as were most young pros. However, she decided to stay and further develop the city’s IT ecosystem, thereby improving the attractiveness of Mariupol overall. Today, Eva Belchenko holds the position of Project Director of the Center for Startup Development in the 1991 Mariupol startup accelerator and is the co-founder of the MRPL IT Cluster.

Location: Mariupol, Myru Avenue, 93B

Project Director: Eva Belchenko

1991 Mariupol

Mrpl it cluster

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“I became interested in business at a very young age,” recalls Eva. “After finding success with some of my ideas, I became interested in the IT industry.” In 2014, Eva, like many others in East Ukraine, faced the choice of leaving the region, or staying. Prospects were disappointing, with the ongoing war affecting the country. “Since Mariupol remained part of Ukraine, and local authorities were receptive to new ideas, it became clear to me that the idea of changing the city was more satisfying and exciting than the alternative of simply leaving the city,” says Eva.

The project director of 1991 Mariupol worked in the technology business for five years. Eva started with a small company that developed web add-ons, and gained there an understanding of how the IT ecosystem works. Because she had ambitions to impact a major change in society and economy of East Ukraine, Eva became a local coordinator of the Swedish-Ukrainian Beetroot Academy, and helped open a branch in Mariupol with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia and the Estonian Refugee Council. The acute shortage of web developers, and the desire of city residents to build a progressive IT community were the major reasons for the opening of the Beetroot Academy in the city.

Projects and Plans of 1991 Mariupol

Today, the Startup Development Center of 1991 Mariupol is one of the most modern spaces in the city for learning new skills and for developing local IT initiatives, serving as a meeting place for innovators, young talent, local authorities, businesses and investors. The project was started by the Ukrainian civic tech organization SocialBoost, which focuses on IT initiatives with significant social impact. For SocialBoost, this is not their first project in East Ukraine, as they have already launched a public participation budget platform and developed an interactive map ReDonbass of destroyed industrial facilities in Donbas region.

1991 Mariupol also has strong partnerships with the Mariupol City Council. “Our building is located in the reconstructed Korolenko library” — says Eva. “The old building was fully adapted to a modern technological center for business and entrepreneurship. Local authorities organized everything, from the repair of the facilities to the purchase of furniture.”

“In 2021, together with the municipal authorities, we plan to launch an impact fund for Mariupol startups.”

Impact investment theory assumes that business investments are an essential factor for achieving a more inclusive and sustainable society. Therefore, the goal of impact investors is to show that investments can have a positive (social or environmental) impact, as well as financial profitability. This newest financial strategy for Ukraine is now supported by millennials, young professionals, and investors around the world. Many millennials believe that the primary task of business is to benefit society, so they want to work for businesses that pursue such ethical practices. Millennials are almost twice as likely as Gen Xers to view their investments as a way of expressing social, political or environmental values.

Of course, charity in its pure, original format will continue to exist. However, the defining property of impact investing is that projects are expected to be sustainable, and all initiatives must reach that sustainability stage in order to continue to exist without grant funds and further investments. “Those of us managing the 1991 Open Data Incubator programs often explain to startups that society-benefiting projects don’t always have to be forever free. Especially when it comes to projects that have long-term goals,” says Denys Gursky, Chairman of the Board of SocialBoost and co-founder of the 1991 Open Data Incubator.

To better understand what 1991 Mariupol’s facilities looks like, it is worth noting that the center spans two floors with a large meeting area, an event area, a coworking space, a video conferencing room, and team offices. In March of 2021, one of the residents of the center will open a fabrication lab (FabLab) in the center, functioning as an innovative workshop that will allow young people to develop their skills and deepen their knowledge in the fields of education, art, and science. “FabLab will be aimed at helping students enrolled in local colleges, serving to expand their horizons and to provide them with valuable knowledge they would struggle to find elsewhere,” says Belchenko.

Revival of the IT Ecosystem in East Ukraine

“Our goal is not only to engage with the creative community of Mariupol”, — shares Eva. “We plan to replace the word “Mariupol” in our name with a word that would better portray us as a center that works with all cities in East Ukraine. In the past five years, cities in the region have been completely emptied of human resources and intellectual capital. We feel that now is the time when we can return professionals to the region, with even greater productivity for the ecosystem.” Belchenko sees the main task for her team to revive the IT ecosystem in the East. Eva emphasizes that the key focus of her center are startups, but she understands that large IT companies can also be useful for Mariupol: “There is a trend of relocations in our city and in other cities. We are trying to solve the problem of the outflow of senior and mid-career IT professionals. We understand it would be beneficial to make an offer to some large company to establish an office in Mariupol and to stop the “brain drain”, — Eva shares.

Incubation Programs for Startups

There are several startup programs at the 1991 Mariupol center for those who are still deciding whether to join a startup and for those who already have a product and just need further mentoring. For example, the Startup Course is an expedited program for future startup founders that teaches business and financial modeling, how to work with venture investors, what trends exist within the IT industry, and how to pitch their startup. This is a program during which brainstorming and work with mentors takes place, including meetings with entrepreneurs who have already launched their product. “Our mentors are business analysts in funds, founders, consultants, image agencies, and product managers. Our network has expanded greatly thanks to the connection with the 1991 headquarters in Kyiv,” Belchenko continues. “On the other hand, at Startup Incubator, we are looking for people who already have business ideas and teams, with at least an MVP product, who have partners, and current product revenue.”

A new start-up ecosystem in Ukraine and benefits for investors

Eva pointed us to an example of a Ukrainian-Estonian startup that graduated from the incubator — HologramGlobal — an online house builder. With HologramGlobal, a user can choose a prototype of a house or design one themselves, being able to select even the smallest detail: interiors, exteriors, dishes, coatings, communications. “Thanks to the incubator, the startup has decided on its business and financial model, received feedback on branding, and in the end it came out with two projects instead of one: a 3D Marketplace with 3D household goods and the ability to make interior and exterior items in software, and a separate project — a house modeller– a longer-term implementation, the MVP of which will be launched in the summer of 2022,” — shared the project director of 1991 Mariupol.

Mariupol IT cluster

In addition to 1991 Mariupol, Eva Belchenko is actively engaged in the development of the local IT cluster. “There are about 2,000 IT professionals in Mariupol, and twice as many IT workers specializing in factory automation. In 2018, we held the first post-war IT conference in Mariupol, where about 400 IT specialists participated. Since then, the MRPL IT Cluster has been formed,” says the co-founder of the cluster.

The Ucluster team wishes the Mariupol IT cluster success and good luck. We hope that together with the growing IT community, they will continue to successfully develop the ecosystem and introduce global IT trends to East Ukraine.

To review 1991 Mariupol graduates, click here.

Українське ком'юніті стартапів, інвесторів та організаторів кластерів.