Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

VimpelCom, Kyivstar, A.T. Kearney Ukraine present a report "Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine" - How Ukraine can build a world-class digital ecosystem

Executive Summary

If Ukraine can build on its considerable technical expertise to create a vibrant digital entrepreneurial ecosystem, it could become a major player in the global digital economy, bolstering its competitiveness and long-term prospects.

Today, about 400 digital start-ups are launched each year, of which only one or two ultimately become successful companies. Among these success stories are Readdle, which provides applications for document reading, scanning, formatting, and printing on iPhones and iPads, along with Deposit Photos, which has established a professional photo library, and Looksery, which has developed face transformation filters that can be used when taking a photo with a smartphone and has been acquired by Snapchat for $150 million.
Strengths and opportunities
• Ukraine’s good education system, well-developed IT outsourcing industry, and R&D expertise mean the country has a strong supply of talented software developers, who cost less to employ than their counterparts in developed countries.
• The number of Internet users in Ukraine is growing rapidly with the rollout of 3G mobile networks and rising smartphone adoption. By 2018, there are likely to be 41 million smartphones in use in Ukraine, up from 16 million in 2014. Moreover, consumer surveys suggest Ukrainians have a strong appetite for mobile commerce.

• Hit by the economic crisis, Ukraine’s 340,000 businesses need digital solutions to cut costs and become more productive, with small- and medium-size enterprises in the agriculture, retail, and logistics sectors leading demand.

Weaknesses and threats

• A shortage of investment capital remains a major barrier, particularly beyond the seed stage in a start-up’s development, forcing some entrepreneurs to go abroad for funding.

• A lack of business and global market knowledge means talented IT specialists don’t necessarily succeed as entrepreneurs.

• Political instability has prompted about half of Ukraine’s outsourcing companies to scale back their activities, according to some market experts, while some R&D centers have closed.

• Ukraine has few incubators and accelerators, while universities and large businesses provide insufficient support to start-ups.

• Market experts and entrepreneurs flag gaps in the legal framework regulating online businesses, over-regulation in some areas, high taxes and corruption as major issues, making Ukrainian start-ups less attractive for foreign investors.

Recommendations Sharing expertise

• Ukraine’s corporates need to give entrepreneurs better access to their key decision makers and provide start-ups with more managerial support and expertise, possibly through the involvement of non-executive directors or informal mentors.

• Universities need to provide more effective business education to help engineers develop managerial Universities in Ukraine need to partner with corporations to introduce efficient business courses for non-business faculties.

Expanding markets

• Start-ups need to think globally from the Given the relatively small size of the domestic market, Ukraine’s public and private sectors need to work together to harness the Ukrainian diaspora and establish a network of foreign partners willing to help start-ups break into overseas markets.

Encouraging investment

 •Investors can mitigate risks by creating syndicates. Investors can lower risks by establishing syndicates, involving foreign venture capital (VC) funds but with local VC funds taking the lead.

• The government needs to consider judicial, intellectual property, and political Looking beyond the current geopolitical situation, investors need to be assured of a level playing field and the rule of law.

Stimulating  innovation

• Academia and industry need to collaborate more. More universities need to follow Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’s example, collaborating with international tech giants and local digital companies, and setting up incubators to encourage innovations and entrepreneurship by students and alumni. 

• The government needs to make regulation more efficient and flexible to give start-ups the scope to develop new business In particular, the government needs to address entrepreneurs’ concerns about the legal framework regulating online businesses, reducing regulation and identifying fiscal incentives where possible.


1 Introduction
1.1 Why Ukraine needs a vibrant digital entrepreneurial ecosystem
A vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem can have a huge impact on the overall health of a national economy. In the United States, for example, companies originally backed by venture capital now account for 43 percent of public corporations and 57 percent of the total market capital- ization of public companies. These companies create jobs (accounting for 37 percent of the total workforce of public companies), pay taxes, and make a major contribution to the broader health of the economy. Venture capital is also a key growth engine in some smaller economies, such as in Israel.

Ukraine is grappling with both the immediate impact of the ongoing geopolitical situation    and fundamental structural challenges in its economy. In 2014–2015, the Ukrainian economy has halved in dollar terms. Ukraine’s aging and shrinking population, together with an over- dependence on raw materials and agriculture, are dampening the country’s long-term   growth  prospects.

Yet Ukraine has some of the key ingredients necessary to develop a vibrant digital ecosystem, providing well-paid jobs that could keep young, talented people in the country. In particular, Ukraine has a good education system and a strong IT outsourcing industry, which gives its software engineers exposure to and experience with global markets. If Ukraine can build on its considerable technical expertise to create a vibrant digital entrepreneurial ecosystem, it could become a major player in the global digital economy, bolstering its competitiveness and its long-term prospects.
1.2 Objectives and methodology
To stimulate debate about how to strengthen Ukraine’s position in the global digital economy, this paper analyzes the country’s existing digital entrepreneurial ecosystem, pinpointing its strengths and weaknesses, before making recommendations.

The paper presents key findings from research conducted by A.T. Kearney and VimpelCom for Make Your Mark, the flagship corporate responsibility program of VimpelCom, which is a major player in Ukraine’s nascent digital economy. A.T. Kearney interviewed key market experts, including educational institutes, investors, accelerators, and entrepreneurs, and conducted  an online survey of digital start-ups.

This paper draws on the views of these market experts and participants along with data obtained from third-party sources such as the World Economic Forum, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), The Dealbook of Ukraine by AVentures Capital and Ukraine Digital News, and industry analysts to present insights into how Ukraine can build a vibrant digital ecosystem.
2 Ukraine’s Start-up Market Today
2.1 Very few digital start-ups achieve scale
In Ukraine, about 400 digital start-ups are launched each year. Market experts estimate that about half of these are promising projects, of which about 30 percent secure funding within Ukraine, either from venture capitalists, business angels, or friends and family. A further 5 percent go abroad for funding. Of the 60 or so Ukrainian funded start-ups that remain in the country, about a third become sustainable, and one or two scale into “star” companies— successful and growing businesses.
Few Ukrainian digital start-ups become thriving companies

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

Several digital start-ups from Ukraine have become successful on the global stage. One of the most prominent is Readdle, which provides applications for document reading, scanning, formatting, and printing on iPhones and iPads. About 40 million people have downloaded Readdle’s apps. Another international success story is Deposit Photos, an online library from which designers can source professional photos. It has annual revenue of more than $10 million and has opened an office in New York. Moreover, Ukrainian start-ups have caught the attention of global Internet players. For example, Snapchat spent $150 million to acquire Looksery, a Ukrainian company that developed real-time face transformation filters that can be used when taking a photo with a smartphone.

Among the digital start-ups that received funding between 2012 and 2014, most (57 percent) are focused on the global market, with about half pursuing business-to-consumer (B2C) business models and an additional 12 percent adopting a mixture of B2C and business-to-business (B2B) models. Most Ukrainian start-ups backed by venture capitalists between 2012 and 2014 are in the segments of online retailing; social platforms, software as a service (SaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS), also known as cloud computing; content; and big data. About 65 percent focus on the Web, 15 percent say they are pursuing Web and mobile, and 15 percent are mobile only.


Start-ups that received funding in 2012-2014

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

2.2 Dramatic decline in investment 

Some foreign venture capital firms have been active in the Ukrainian market, sometimes in partnership with one of five Ukrainian VC funds, or local business angels (politicians and established businessmen). Although the largest Russian VC funds started actively investing in Ukraine in 2010, investment from Russia ceased in 2014 due to the political confrontation between the two countries. That crisis, together with the related economic implosion, has prompted investors to become more risk averse. In 2014, total investment in Ukrainian digital start-ups was about $23 million, less than half of that in 2013 despite a rise in the number of deals. The vast majority of investments in 2014 were small seed-stage deals.

The size of investments in Ukrainian entrepreneurs has shrunk

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

2.3 Some sectors are growing 

Although the geopolitical situation is having an impact across the economy, some digital sectors in Ukraine are seeing growth in investment, albeit from a low base. Investments in start-ups in the online travel, online transport, Internet of Things, and online health segments have been growing over the past few years

Investments in some digital areas are growing in Ukraine

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

2.4 Venture capital could bounce back

In Ukraine, 2015 is likely to mark the bottom of the venture capital market. Even under a pessi- mistic scenario in which the number of deals remains flat in 2016, the overall investment by venture capitalists in Ukrainian digital start-ups is likely to rise slightly. The average deal value is likely to grow slightly in 2016-2017 (from a very low base) as earlier projects mature and seek new, larger investment rounds. However, many of these later funding rounds could take place abroad as a result of continued political instability and lack of local investors.

This growth could be driven by the launch of several accelerators and innovative centers that attract the attention of global investors looking for fresh talent. Ukraine has a strong base of software developers. At the same time, local investors could become more active as they see opportunities to make a return through later funding rounds led by global investors.


3 Ukraine’s Digital Foundations
3.1 Smartphone adoption rising quickly

The number of Internet users in Ukraine rose to 20 million in 2014, taking the proportion of the population with Internet access to 43 percent—significantly below that in developed countries (see figure 5). Internet usage has been held back by a lack of fixed-line infrastructure and the relatively late launch of 3G mobile services. Still, growing smartphone adoption is enabling more people to get online. By 2018, there are likely to be 41 million smartphones in use in Ukraine, up from 16 million in 2014.

Fixed broadband penetration is also rising, albeit slowly, and is now close to 25 percent of households. However, the high cost of deploying infrastructure across Ukraine’s large geographic expanse means some towns and villages have no fixed lines at all.
3.2 The consumer market: mainly young urbanites
Although 21 million Ukrainians have Internet access, the most promising market for digital starts-ups are relatively affluent young people living in cities. Consumers’ buying power has decreased significantly since the devaluation of the hryvnia: only about 25 percent of Internet users earn the equivalent of more than $141 per month, and only 7 percent earn more than $301 per month.
Today, Ukrainians are spending less than other Europeans on smartphone apps, but they are generally receptive to buying apps in the future and are more likely to shop using their mobile devices than other Europeans. Ukraine ranks high both in terms of mobile commerce spending and digital usage based on an index that considers the share of consumers using their phone to access the Internet and apps, make digital and physical purchases, make calls via apps, and preferring to buy connectivity online.
3.3 The business market: digitally undeveloped
There are about 340,000 companies in Ukraine, of which 82 percent have 10 or fewer employees. The wholesale and retail trade is the largest segment, accounting for 28 percent of all Ukrainian companies, while agriculture and forestry is the second largest segment with 14 percent. The fastest-growing segment is transportation and postal, which today accounts for 4 percent of Ukraine’s companies.
Market experts say the digital B2B sector is undeveloped, with opportunities for start-ups to deliver solutions that reduce costs and drive revenue, particularly in the agriculture, retail, logistics, and transportation sectors. Because small and medium-size enterprises are more flexible than their large counterparts, they are more likely to be receptive to such solutions and have shorter decision-making processes. However, smaller companies tend to be less stable.
3.4 The IT outsourcing sector is strong

Ukraine does have key assets that could help digital start-ups develop. One is a major IT outsourcing industry made up of more than 500 companies generating collective annual revenue of about $2 billion each year, according to an estimate by VERNA. For digital start-ups, this sector, which employs more than 40,000 people, is both a competitor for and a source of engineering and managerial talent. Ukraine is also home to more than 100 R&D centers run by global companies and more than 100 established online commerce and digital platforms, primarily serving the local market. Again, these employers represent both a potential source of and a potential competitor for software developers and managers.

However, political instability has caused some upheaval in Ukraine’s IT industry. About half of Ukraine’s outsourcing companies are scaling back their activities, according to some market experts, while some R&D centers have either closed or reduced their operations.
3.5 Ukraine’s IT engineers are in demand
Ukraine is a significant source of low-cost software developers and IT professionals for the global economy. The country has about 150,000 software developers, ranking the country 20th globally, with an additional 17,000 IT specialists graduating each year. Salaries are low by international standards, with software developers in the Ukraine earning an average of 70 percent less than their counterparts in the United States (see figure 7). The growing trend of talent mobility is accelerating the migration of Ukrainian developers to developed countries, where political stability is greater and salaries are higher.
Most of the IT specialists who remain in Ukraine work in the country’s well-established outsourcing  industry,  in  corporate  R&D  centers,  or  for  established  online  commerce platforms, which pay relatively high salaries by Ukrainian standards: only 1 to 3 percent of  the country’s IT workforce is involved in start-ups. IT companies say graduates tend to have  good  basic  competencies  in  IT,  but  they  still  need  to  provide  additional  programs,  running for  several  months,  for  new employees.
3.6 Government support of the start-up ecosystem

Market experts and start-ups stress the importance of government support. In particular, they say that market access regulations could be more flexible and that tax and investor protection laws could create a more favorable environment for the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The Ukrainian government, in its decree “On the Strategy for Sustainable Development ‘Ukraine-2020,’” announced several priorities for country development, addressing critical issues such as the deregulation and development of entrepreneurship, as well as reforms of the tax system, corporate law, and the financial sector.

To step up digitization in Ukraine, several governmental programs have been launched recently: an e-commerce law was adopted in 2015 that addressed several gaps in online transaction regulations; an “Open Data Initiative” resulted in February 2016 in the opening of the “1991” incubator, which is the first non-commercial development program for digital start-ups based on open government data; and e-government and “smart city” initiatives in the largest cities have attracted talented digital start-ups.


4 Support for Entrepreneurs

4.1 Lack of accelerators and incubators

The support network available to entrepreneurs in Ukraine is very limited. The country has insufficient accelerators and incubators, a lack of local mentors and experienced entrepre- neurs, and few potential sources of investment. Market experts say several accelerators (sponsored by private investors) have had to close after adopting unsustainable business models based on short time horizons and aggressive financial terms.

Although some city administrations are launching new accelerator projects, they tend to lack a single long-term strategy and significant private investment. Moreover, several similar projects have been launched in parallel, potentially spreading the available investment too thin while complicating and delaying rollouts.

One of the success stories is a project launched by the National Technical University of Ukraine “Kyiv Polytechnic Institute” (KPI). The university has established a successful school for start-ups, which provides two months of free business education focused on technology transfers and innovative entrepreneurship. KPI also runs a “pre-incubator” to help aspiring entrepreneurs validate business ideas, together with the Sikorsky Challenge contest in which the winners receive seed funding. Moreover, the university has created three venture capital funds and is engaged as a partner in seven venture capital funds.

Although most co-working places are too expensive for entrepreneurs, the government of Sweden is sponsoring low-cost facilities in Kyiv, called iHub, and there are plans to open similar facilities in other cities. Moreover, the number of networking events aimed at start-ups is growing each year, driven by local VC funds, private investors, and co-working places. Although participation by international parties is rare, these events provide opportunities for public relations and making contacts in the local market.

Ukrainian start-ups say they really value marketing support, legal and tax advice, and feedback sessions with investors and experts.

Importance and availability of different elements to support entrepreneurs

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine

In terms of marketing support, start-ups want quick access to a customer base to test a hypothesis or to get support in service promotion. The concept of mentorship is not well-developed in Ukraine, and only 55 percent of respondents identify mentoring programs as important.
4.2 Later-stage funding largely unavailable

Although seed and round A funding is still available in Ukraine (see section 2.2), the geopolitical and economic situation has made it harder than ever for digital start-ups to secure round B and round C funding. This makes it tough for entrepreneurs to take their business across the chasm between start up and scale up.

Mature start-ups have a hard time finding investors (Life cycle of a Ukrainian start-up project)

Digital Entrepreneurship in Ukraine


The immaturity of the Ukrainian VC market means there have been no series C deals. Some start-ups have instead sought later-stage funding in the United States. In 2014, there were just 10 small exits, typically through acquisitions by foreign strategic investors, such as Google, Opera Software, and Naspers.

4.3 Limited collaboration between academia and industry
Collaboration between universities and industry helps businesses innovate, adapt to change, and become more globally competitive. In fact, there is a strong correlation between the degree of collaboration between academia and enterprises and a country’s overall competitiveness, according the World Economic Forum.

However, there is little effective collaboration between Ukrainian universities and industry. Higher education in Ukraine is still focused mostly on theory rather than practical application. Ukraine scores 3.5 on a seven-point index measuring university-industry collaboration on R&D—far behind the United States with 5.8 and Israel with 5.5. Low prestige and pay for academic work is also hampering innovation by Ukraine’s universities.

In  our  online  survey  of  entrepreneurs,  most  respondents  say  the  majority  of  universities don’t provide efficient business and language courses. Still, most entrepreneurs do acknowledge that Ukraine’s education system is  producing  competent engineers and IT specialists.

However, in 2006, KPI launched an innovation center—taking advantage of a special law giving it greater freedom in terms of activities and partnerships so it no longer had to employ a public tender process or special permits. By 2014, KPI’s innovation center had 111 partners in R&D outsourcing (mainly U.S. and Asian companies, including Samsung). In 2014, Ukraine adopted a law that also gives other universities greater independence to pursue innovation.

4.4 Corporations too opaque and inaccessible

Market experts and entrepreneurs say enterprises in Ukraine aren’t doing enough to support the development of a digital ecosystem. Although one-quarter of the start-ups in the online survey say they have a partnership with a corporation, more than half the respondents say enterprises have not developed sufficient transparency and haven’t made it simple enough to collaborate. 

Still, most start-ups believe corporations could add significant value to their businesses as distributors, customers, and investors. Start-ups suggest potential partnership roles such as organizing workshops with industry professionals, particularly engineers, to share knowledge in specific technical areas. For corporates, there are several potential benefits to engaging with start-ups, including intangible benefits such as building a better business environment, positive public relations, and improved reputation along with practical benefits such as creating a more entrepreneurial culture, support in tackling specific business problems, and aid in expanding into new markets and services.

However, only 10 percent of start-ups in our online survey agree they need to partner with a corporate to be successful, while 80 percent believe it doesn’t matter.
5 Conclusions and Recommendations

With a strong IT industry and a good supply of engineers, the basic conditions are in place to develop a vibrant digital start-up ecosystem. Better alignment of efforts, however, will be required to build on this foundation. Among the many factors at work, digital entrepreneurs identify the inefficient regulatory framework and limited access to investors and funding as their biggest barriers. To help the economy grow and boost the domestic market, Ukraine needs to take steps to address both these barriers. To that end, this section recommends some key actions for stakeholders in the digital ecosystem.

5.1 Sharing expertise 

Greater engagement between corporates and start-ups. Enterprises need to give entrepreneurs better access to their key decision makers. Greater engagement with start-ups will help enterprises to become flexible, innovative, and nimble, thereby maintaining their competitiveness in a more digital economy. Both corporates and VC funds need to provide start-ups with more managerial support and expertise by providing either non-executive directors or informal mentors.
Expand business education in universities to enable engineers to gain more managerial skills. More universities need to follow in the footsteps of KPI and partner with corporations to introduce efficient business courses for non-business faculties. Universities also need to partner with other universities to develop joint business programs.
5.2 Expanding markets
Increase support for start-ups to scale globally. Given the relatively small size of the domestic market, Ukraine’s start-ups need to begin with an international mindset. They need to be active outside Ukraine to grow quickly and attract investment. To that end, the country’s public and private sectors need to work together to harness the Ukrainian diaspora and establish a network of foreign partners willing to help start-ups break into overseas markets.
5.3 Encouraging investment

Mitigate risks by creating syndicates led by local VCs. Investors can lower risks by estab- lishing syndicates with local VC funds leading the deal. Such syndicates should look to bring in foreign VC funds with the financial firepower to increase the liquidity in the Ukrainian market. Foreign VCs have been open to such partnerships in the past, and the global search for engineering talent should ensure they once again become active in Ukraine. VC funds also need to promote transparency and collaboration to enable non-specialized private investors to participate in syndicates. These measures would alleviate the bottleneck in later-stage funding.

Undertake judicial, intellectual property, and political reforms. Looking beyond the current geopolitical challenges, investors need to be assured of a level playing field and the rule of law, with more opportunities for competition and fewer opportunities for corruption. If Ukraine can create a robust, trusted, and objective legal framework, the economy will gain new momentum and return to long-term growth.

5.4 Stimulating  innovation

Encourage greater collaboration between academia and industry. More universities need to follow the example of KPI and collaborate with international tech giants and local digital companies, set up incubators, and encourage entrepreneurship by students and alumni.

Make regulation more efficient and flexible. Start-ups need to have the scope to experiment with new business models and innovate. The government needs to fill gaps in the legal framework regulating online businesses, reduce regulation in some areas, and review taxes on small businesses. A regulatory environment that encourages digital innovation will help attract investors and reduce emigration of talented engineers and entrepreneurs.

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