By Nastia Rab
In February, Razom welcomed Ilia Kenigshtein to New York as part of its Razom IT speaker series to present his most recent venture – Creative Quarter. The venture aims to transform an abandoned tram depot in Lviv, Ukraine into a bustling innovation hub — a place for work, creativity, learning, leisure and entertainment under one roof.
With over 16,000 square meters of space to work with, Creative Quarter’s long list of amenities and resources is a reflection of exactly what it takes to have a thriving innovation culture. Entrepreneurs, developers, journalists, advertisers, artists, public figures and their children will have access to coworking spaces, event halls, themed cafes, a digital lab and hackerspace, an education center, a startup bank, and an eco park and restaurant. Creative Quarter is a lot of things at once, and that’s the whole point.
The campus will be a place for people to learn and collaborate, for ideas to spark and be nurtured, and for the community to be a positive example for those striving to be a part of the innovation economy in Lviv and beyond. Creative Quarter is a physical embodiment of an idea that Ukraine is a creator of technology rather than just an exporter of it through the well-established out-sourcing industry.
Ilia and his team have collected a large list of supporters and collaborators. So far, the project’s strategic partners include Intel, Cisco, HP, Ericsson, Microsoft, and Schneider Electric. One of the project’s core investors, Vlad Voskresenskiy, joined Ilia for the Q&A session. During their discussion, it soon became obvious that Vlad’s path of founding and building Invisible Solutions, a company that now calls Microsoft and Salesforce amongst its clients, is representative of the entrepreneurs in Ukraine who don’t have the support they need to scale their ideas to their full capacity. Vlad recounted how he built his company in Ukraine entirely in the dark, and wants Ukraine’s future entrepreneurs to have a different experience from his so he shares his knowledge through Creative Quarter.
When prompted by the audience, Ilia and Vlad explained why Lviv rather than Kiev was chosen as Creative Quarter’s home. According to Ilia and his investors, Creative Quarter has the highest potential for success in Lviv over any other city for practical and symbolic reasons. The community and grassroots support is already there. Ilia already counts Lviv City Council, several universities and museums, business leaders and artists amongst his partners.
Moreover, the tram depot itself was once home to Siemens, the German engineering firm that established Lviv’s first electric tram system. Building a modern space into the historical fabric of the city makes Lviv and the depot a natural place to house an innovation hub. During his visit to the US, Ilia met with one of the engineers from that team who now lives in Princeton, NJ.
Ilia and Vlad were also asked to explain how the war in Eastern Ukraine figures into their plans for Creative Quarter. Their answer was simple — the war doesn’t scare off their ambitious plan, which is to open up the space in stages within the next 10-12 months. Ilia, who immigrated from Ukraine to Israel and back to Ukraine, said if Israel has been a country at war for the last 60 years and has a booming tech sector, then why does Ukraine have to be any different?
Both entrepreneurs are used to persuading the government and the law to catch up to the realities of Ukrainian society. The audience listened in with amusement to a story of how 3G, a no-brainer in this day and age, was recently introduced in Ukraine thanks to their campaigning. Their next side campaign? Bringing PayPal to Ukraine. Thanks to a law prohibiting Ukrainian citizens from having international bank accounts, entrepreneurs in Ukraine cannot collect money via a PayPal account.
It’s clear that much of Ilia’s and Vlad’s work has centered around helping entrepreneurs and startups in Ukraine, succeed in Ukraine on a global scale. Building Creative Quarter feels like an obvious next step.