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Five Ukrainian startups that really went global

“Unicorn” writing assistant Grammarly company’s office. Photo: Grammarly archives
Five Ukrainian startups that really went global
Article by: Yuliia Rudenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra
An app to substitute your face for a movie star’s in the split of a second, a live map to track wars and crimes, and a mind-controlled prosthesis — these are only some examples of Ukrainian innovative companies that found their international success. Here are five of them that really went global — we can bet you know at least a few.

1. Grammarly, a writing assistant

When asked about his life purpose, Grammarly co-founder Dmytro Lider says,

“[I]t is the implementation of one’s own values through actions… I focus not on delivering results but on creating and living through the states I appreciate — in particular, freedom and love.”

Dmytro Lider. Photo: Grammarly archives

For Dmytro and two other Grammarly founders Alex Shevchenko and Max Lytvyn, the mission of the company is “to improve lives by improving communication,” Lider notes.

Created in 2009, Grammarly was valued at over $1 bln some ten years later. The company has offices in Kyiv, New York, Vancouver, San Francisco and is enjoyed by over 30 mln users worldwide.

It is a free online service. Grammarly uses an artificial intelligence system analyzing every sentence of a text to help clients better translate their communication intent into the English language.

The team elaborates algorithms based on an assessment of millions of English sentences to provide recommendations in the four categories:

  • Correctness (grammar, spelling, and punctuation);
  • Clarity (conciseness and readability);
  • Delivery (formality, politeness, and confidence);
  • Engagement (vocabulary and variety).

“Not only what, but also how you write is crucial. Striking the right tone in writing appears more challenging, as you have no eye contact with your interlocutor on the other side of the screen and don’t see their body language,” Mr. Lider speaks on the “tone detector” feature of Grammarly, stating this is what makes the company stand out on the market.

Dmytro Lider told that the product idea started unfolding in early 2000 when Lytvyn and Shevchenko created MyDropBox, a service detecting plagiarism in students’ works. It was eventually sold to Blackboard company (2007) and gave a push to a brand new idea — Grammarly.

“People resort to plagiarism because writing texts is a sophisticated task, not all feel they have the necessary skill and resources. This inspired us to create a service that would assist in creating effective communication in writing,” Grammarly’s co-founder commented on how the product was created.

2. Liveuamap, an online service to track conflicts, protests, and crimes worldwide

Maps created by the Ukrainian programmers Oleksandr Bilchenko and Rodion Roshkovskyi attract the interest of not only average internet users but also experts and investigative journalists, in particular from Bellingcat.

The website also provides special information services for humanitarian organizations, so that they can track whether their work area is safe to visit or not. Foreign Ministries of the U.K. and the Netherlands, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace are also among the users of the startup. In 2019, experts on Libya used Liveuamap data when addressing the UN Security Council.

Oleksandr Bilchenko (left) and Rodion Roshkovskyi. Photo: Liveuamap archives

Aspiring to make their own meaningful product, the two Altwork software development company programmers found such an opportunity in 2014. Then, Ukraine was shaken by the Revolution of Dignity (also known as Euromaidan), a winter-long bloody protest against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

“During the Euromaidan, a problem emerged — Ukrainian events were covered for the world mostly by the Russian media, Russia Today. And the second issue — few understood where Ukraine is located. One media showed the map of Pakistan and wrote Kyiv instead of Islamabad,” Roshkovskyi recalls.

Then, they started overlaying the key events of the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv on Google Maps and translating the main news into English. Today, the maps operate based on OpenStreetMap.

The project evolved with the new events that impacted Ukraine — Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas. Liveuamap began telling the world about the international armed conflict in Ukraine. By the end of summer 2014, the project provided service for over 150,000 users per day.

When the number of hostilities in Donbas dropped, the project expanded to include other conflict areas.

“We decided to employ our methodology to the countries of the Middle East, especially Syria, where the war with the Islamic State took a heated phase,” noted the co-founder.

Today, Liveuamap shows conflicts also in Nagorno-Karabakh, Afghanistan, Libya, Ethiopia, and attacks of the Islamic State in the Middle East.

War map in Syria. Snapshot: Liveuamap

In addition, the project features protests in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and the USA. The map is so sophisticated that it shows not only the city but also the street of an attack to ensure the security of the locals.

As the startup grew, new types of live maps have been introduced. For instance, a map of crimes involving guns in the US

US map of crimes. Snapshot: Liveuamap

Another project variation is the map of companies whose activities damage the environment, launched in cooperation with a local environmental organization in Houston. The maps also showcase pandemics, piracy attacks, drug wars, and migration processes. The website runs in Ukrainian, English, Arabic, and Spanish.

The dream of the Liveuamap creators is a world where people care about the situation beyond the borders of their home states and where the number of crimes and wars is decreasing, says Bilchenko.

3. Reface app, or “a movie starring you”

“We aspired to create a technology that would allow a user to sit in front of the screen, turn on Netflix, point a camera, and watch a movie starring them,” co-founder and CEO Reface Dmytro Shvets tells about the startup idea, adding that the product is not only about changing faces but also modifying personalities.

The innovation uses artificial intelligence-powered deepfake technology that at first allowed people to swap faces only in an image. Inspired by initial reactions to the startup, in particular by Elon Musk’s feedback on Twitter, the creators advanced it to other types of visual media, such as a video or a GIF.

Screenshot of Reface co-founder Ivan Altsybieiev’s Facebook post: “Overcoming Netflix, YouTube, and TikTok on the globe’s most competitive market, while sitting here on Vozdvizhenka [a district in Kyiv]! It’s still hard to believe. Very proud of our team!”

Easy-to-use (Reface operates as a user-friendly push-button application) and hyper-realistic, the app was ranked first in the Entertainment section on U.S AppStore, getting ahead in the popularity of TikTok, Netflix, Hulu, and Disney. Also, Reface was second in the Overall Free Apps category on the USA AppStore.

Downloaded 100 mn times and featured in Forbes, The Sun, The Verge, and Mashable articles, Reface has been used by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa who shared their refaced videos on social media.

Last year, the company attracted $5.5 mln investment from the world’s leading venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Dmytro Shvets attributes the startup’s success within all age groups to bona fides behind the deepfake technology, universally perceived as evil.

Dmytro Shvets. Photo: Reface archives

“Once a man in his 70s wrote to us. When he was young, he used to play the piano and asked us to swap his face for someone who is playing the piano in a video. We did that for free and he was mega happy. This positive emotion is significant for us,” Shvets recalls.

When asked what kind of advice he could pass on to the young generation, Dmytro suggests to keep dreaming and acting:

“The emotions you are feeling in ups and downs, team-building, and achieving results are worth the effort. This is a unique experience. The earlier you start, the more prepared you will be in the future.

Did I plan to become a startupper? No.

…But time passed and here we come — the market’s leaders. Reface is more than just an app for swapping faces and the team is working to create a brand new social media.

At some point, you realize that you can implement much more than what you dreamt of a year ago. Nothing is impossible, the limits are only in your head.”

4. Esper Bionics, next-gen bionic prostheses that learn human habits

Myoelectric hand prosthesis. Image: Esper Bionics

Esper Bionics is a startup creating intuitively controlled bionic prostheses that use sensors to collect and analyze their users’ information. An artificial limb communicates a patient’s data to the cloud and adjusts algorithms controlling the hand.

“Controllability is one of the huge problems on the market. Thanks to modern data processing, we are now able to detect in which conditions a certain grip is preferred by the user and help to choose that grip in advance,” Ihor Ilchenko, co-founder and engineer, explained.

In an Esper Bionics video, an artificial hand user named Nika is demonstrating the hand’s functions: from peeling yoghurt tops to picking tiny grapes.

This is made possible with the held of myoelectric sensors which read signals naturally generated by human muscles and use them as an impulse for movement. Esper Bionics produced their own digital sensors which faster transmit the signal to the phone. The phone app receives the signals and allows to change the hand’s reaction rate, add and delete new grips, such as taking and moving objects, write, or walk on the street. The cloud obtains data from the phone app and analyses user’s movements to improve the algorithms of using a prosthesis.

Having created and tested two prototype prostheses, Esper Bionics is set to make 20 prostheses for US clinics by the end of 2021.

The hardware/software architecture the company is developing is a foundation for a new era of prosthodontics, СЕО Esper Bionics Dmytro Hazda believes.

“Sensor implants are what will most of all influence humanity in 15 years. Our capabilities, digital world management, body parameters, longevity, and life quality will considerably improve. The realm of prosthodontics will become the epicenter of such technology…”

5. FluroSat, a startup for better crops to ensure global food security

This technology exploiting satellite data and artificial intelligence helps farmers grow crops more efficiently. The startup was founded in Australia by Anastasiya Volkova, a Ukrainian that made it to the BBC’s 100 women of 2020.

Anastasiya Volkova. Photo: Flurosat

As Anastasiya told in an interview with the BBC, satellite imagery allows better analyzing crop fields from the scientific (biochemical and agronomy) perspectives.

Flurosat provides farmers with this weekly data, including the state of the crops, risks, changes, anomalies, possible sources of infection, which cannot be seen by a human eye. Based on this information, growers receive recommendations on the type and area of irrigation and fertilization. And this helps take immediate action to save crops.

“For example, our clients in Guatemala used data for autonomous drones to irrigate sugar cane. [Owing to the technology], they watered only 10% [crops] on a 250 acres field. This is what we call ‘grow more with little effort,’” Anastasiya said.

The startup has so far helped grow sunflower in Romania, nuts in California, rapeseed in France, and citruses in Brazil. Recently, Ukrainian farmers have taken an interest in the technology.

At the moment, there are over 5,000 platform users from 45 countries. FluroSat monitors 108,135 square kilometres.

Back in 2015, Volkova set off to the Lucky Country to pursue a doctorate in aeronautics (she developed a system of visual navigation for drones to allow them to manage the flight direction). In Australia, Anastasiya together with her agronomist friend Brook would often ride to a field 300 km away from Sydney. Brook would collect plant samples for lab analysis and Anastasiya would observe.

“I learned what Brook was doing and tried to understand what farmers and agronomists need for their daily work and I — for my startup,” remembered Volkova. That is how the idea of a startup based on monitoring crops emerged.

With two offices in Australia and one in the US, FluroSat has already set in Kyiv to support businesses in European time zones.

This publication is part of the Ukraine Explained series, which is aimed at telling the truth about Ukraine’s successes to the world. It is produced with the support of the National Democratic Institute in cooperation with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, Internews, StopFake, and Content is produced independently of the NDI and may or may not reflect the position of the Institute. Learn more about the project here.
Edited by: Alya Shandra
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