Is France about to become a harbor for Ukrainian startups in these troubled times? Thus far — in spite of its size and its thriving innovation ecosystem — this country has not been a major point of destination for Ukrainian or other Eastern European tech entrepreneurs seeking international growth or relocation opportunities.
These entrepreneurs were more attracted to the USA, and those coming to Western Europe traditionally landed in Poland, the Baltics or Germany, rather than in France. But things could change in the future, if judging by the success of several initiatives held recently in Paris.
From June 15 to June 17, no fewer than 14 Ukrainian startups were featured at Vivatech , one of Europe’s largest tech events held each year in Paris, in a dedicated booth promoting Ukraine as “the world’s R&D lab.”
The climax of the show was Volodymyr Zelensky’s appearance at the event on June 17 in the form of a hologram.
Call to “beat the Empire”
“Perhaps it’s unusual for presidents or heads of governments to use a hologram to address people but this is not the only aspect of Star Wars that we have put into practice — we’ll also beat the Empire,” said the Ukrainian president, referring to aggressive Russia.
Zelensky touted the resilience of his country’s digital infrastructure in wartime, and said he will present a “digital lend-lease” plan at the Ukrainian reconstruction conference which is to take place in Lugano, Switzerland, in early July.
Ukraine’s participation in Vivatech — which did not go unnoticed in the media — was supported by a variety of French and Ukrainian public and private players, including La French Tech and the French ministry of foreign affairs, which covered the costs.
“This event turned out to be useful in many respects,” said Diana Sidko, a volunteer who organized the booth, in an exchange with Ukraine Digital News. “It showed to France and Europe that Ukrainians, even in the current circumstances, are at the forefront of global startup innovation.”
Vivatech also “allowed Ukrainian entrepreneurs to find potential partners, clients, investors and accelerators in France and Europe — and at the very least better understand why and how to penetrate the EU market,” Sidko added.
“Don’t miss the train!“
Feelings of unity and solidarity were palpable at a side event, Viva la France et Viva l’Ukraine! Taking place in a prestigious venue in Concorde square, this event attracted a mixed crowd of French and Ukrainians involved or interested in the tech industry.
Businessmen, diplomats and volunteers shared their views on the cooperation potential between the two countries and the need to bridge their startup ecosystem.
“When Ukraine wins this war — and it will win it, — there will be a huge opportunity for French tech businesses,” stated Dominique Piotet, the French CEO of Kyiv tech park Unit.City.
“So far, 90% of the money invested in Ukrainian startups came from the US, so France should not miss the next train!,” he said.
Other speakers underlined the advance of Ukraine in the field of technology usage — as illustrated by the Diia e-government app, which has demonstrated its usefulness even in wartime. The country is ahead of France in certain respects: “How surprising it is that the Paris metro doesn’t offer wireless connection yet,” noted one of the Ukrainian speakers.
Ensemble Ukraine, an initiative launched just days after Russia attacked Ukraine, on Feb. 24, by more than 50 citizens and tech entrepreneurs in France, presented an impressive summary of actions. In three and a half months, its team of volunteers collected some €530,000 plus €200,000 in-kind from companies and individuals to support Ukraine on the ground. 800 refugees were taken care of while more than 4,000 tons of necessities were sent to Ukraine.
Taking advantage of France’s opportunities
Meanwhile Ukrainian investor association UVCA has teamed up with Alliance Tech, a French non-profit, to explore partnership opportunities with major French tech hubs to host Ukrainian startups.
Currently most Ukrainian startups are “scattered across Europe, from Poland to Portugal,” said UVCA Chairman Andrey Kolodyuk in a previous exchange with Ukraine Digital News.
A few Ukrainian startups have already landed in such French tech venues as Liberté Living Lab and Station F in Paris as well as in Sophia Antipolis near Nice in the south of France — but Kolodyuk would like to see many more of them come to France.
“They’d better be grouped within a tech hub that could ensure their quick and successful integration into advanced innovation ecosystems — and France has much to offer in this respect,” he said.