A Medtech CEO On What It’s Like To Be A Half-Ukrainian Startup During War

By Ilya Popov

As the war in Ukraine rages and the humanitarian crisis worsens, the tragedy takes a toll on businesses, too.

But businesses continuing operations is critical for the survival of the economy and, especially, the individuals they employ.

What follows is the story of my startup, Comeback Mobility, a U.S.-Ukrainian medtech startup, and how I’ve tried to support our employees in Ukraine.

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To paraphrase Reid Hoffman for our context, starting a company is like assembling a tank before the enemy appears at our gate.

These were some of the challenges our startup faced due to war, and how we’re handling them.

Cuts in financing

Literally three days before the start of the war, we signed a deal for a new tranche from our current investors. But in these unfortunate circumstances, even investors were forced to redistribute their assets according to new priorities.

We are now actively attracting support from the Ukrainian diaspora in Chicago and from the business community in New York City in order to provide our employees and their families with a stable income.

It’s a temporary measure, but if the company survives it will only prove our will to work.

Disruption of production

Ilya Popov, CEO of Comeback Mobility
Ilya Popov, CEO and founder of Comeback Mobility

Our product combines software and hardware. The latter was produced locally in Ukraine; now the manufacturing has been put on hold as neither our suppliers nor other factories, are working.

We are currently looking for a contractor in Asia, the U.S. and Europe to relocate some of our manufacturing operations and resume building our product. We plan to not only restart the manufacturing with the new version of our core product, but also to donate a part of our planned batch of 5,000 devices to our veterans when the war ends.

Closed market

Before the war, we were running our business in Ukraine and had a base of active clients. Regrettably, we have lost contact with many of them due to the current circumstances.

Now, we can only hope to get in touch soon to hear they are OK and safe. Due to this, the war has pushed us to the Western markets way faster than we could expect. As one startup expert pointed out, it’s better to find the product-market fit directly in the destination market.

Loss of employees

Some key employees could not keep on working as usual amid such events, which is entirely natural and understandable for people living in a country at war.

One brave soul from our team enlisted in the territory defense, another one joined the IT army, and someone decided to volunteer.

However, we managed to quickly substitute the missing staff with new people who had the necessary skills, and redistributed the responsibilities among the team. Thankfully, the company’s processes were disrupted only during the period from Feb. 24 to March 10.

As an employer, what can you do amid war?

Since we are a medtech startup, the first idea that came to my mind was to help the Ukrainian people directly.

A part of the planned 5,000 batch of devices will be given for free to veterans. However, when the war started, we were carrying out clinical studies to prove that our product makes adaptation to prostheses after amputation faster and decreases the likelihood of complications.

These studies have to be finished before we can go further. The next step would be to raise a seed round. This will be one of the conditions on our part in the investment transaction.

Ever since the war started, I have been doing everything possible to help my team and keep their spirits up. The majority of our Ukrainian employees live and work in the cities of Dnipro and Kyiv, and I started the response immediately.

To support Ukrainians, my team and I offered assistance in relocating them and their families to the Western Ukraine and abroad. Along with that, our apartments and offices in Dnipro now accept refugees from Kharkiv.

In addition, over the two weeks when people were coping with chaos and could not complete their tasks, we were still paying our staff and did not cut salaries. It was hard to manage due to the canceled tranche and one month runway, but we handled it because supporting each other right now is more important than ever.

Lastly, I try to support my employees emotionally. However, the best I can do for them right now is find money to always pay their salaries on time, no matter what.

In times of war, when nothing is stable, I want to guarantee them this stability.

 Ilya Popov is CEO and founder of Comeback Mobility, a U.S.-Ukrainian medtech startup that has built a weight-bearing monitoring system for crutch walking and gait rehabilitation.

Image: iStock

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