'It’s a superpower': How this Ukraine tech start-up continued to innovate from a Kyiv bomb shelter

'It’s a superpower': How this Ukraine tech start-up continued to innovate from a Kyiv bomb shelter

After eight months of war, the employees of Ukrainian start-up Headway are now accustomed to working from the relative safety of a basement when the air raid sirens begin wailing over Kyiv.

"People come to the office in the morning and if there is an air [raid] alarm, we take our laptops and go 100 m to our bomb shelter. Then we connect to WiFi - we have stable WiFi there - and we work from there," Iryna Melnyk, the company’s Head of Product, told Euronews Next.

Running a globally successful educational technology start-up - whose bite-sized learning app is now used by 15 million people in over 140 countries - from a bomb shelter is a reality that its Kyiv-based staff has had no choice but to lean into.

But as winter approaches, new personal and professional challenges for employees are presenting themselves, including the new norm of power cuts.

"There is a problem with electricity," said Melnyk. "Russians are attacking the electricity system of Ukraine and we have blackouts".

The increasing regularity of missile strikes on key energy infrastructure - coal, gas and hydroelectric power plants, as well as the substations that connect them to the national grid - has left many parts of Ukraine in darkness and citizens without heating.

People come to the office in the morning and if there is an air [raid] alarm, we take our laptops and go 100 m to our bomb shelter.

"We have generators in the office, so if we have no electricity in the city, we switch to these generators. We have electricity. We have WiFi. Water. All we need," Melnyk said.

Speaking to Euronews Next at this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon, the Headway team was part of a contingent of 59 Ukrainian companies representing the embattled country at Europe’s largest technology event.

Their message to attendees was a clear and unified one: that despite the war raging in their country and the inevitable challenges it presents, Ukraine remains open for business.

“We want investors to invest in Ukrainian start-ups because we are really sustainable, even through all of these challenges and this crisis. We are sustainable and we are growing,” Melnyk said.

Learning app that became a tool for survival

And despite a two-month hiatus in research and development projects, the war in Ukraine has done little to hamper the company’s productivity.

In a few weeks, Headway will launch products on the Portuguese market and new gamification features in what will mark another significant milestone for a company that is only three years old.

Founded in 2019, the start-up has seen astronomic year-on-year growth, expanding from a core team of three to 160 employees with offices in Kyiv, London, Nicosia, and Warsaw.

The subscription-based service - which began first with English language content - is designed to fit life on the move.

Headway
The Headway app's interface showing how it's subscription works and the bite-sized content it offers. - Headway

The concept behind its flagship app is a very simple premise. Instead of watching TikTok videos on their daily commute, for instance, users are encouraged to log in to the app and self-learn through playing games or watching, reading, and listening to curated summaries of the world’s bestselling books.

"When the war started, we made our app free for everyone in Ukraine. It’s still free because we wanted people to have access to education. We also created content that tells the world what is happening in Ukraine, and we made this content free to all," Melnyk said.

In addition to continuing to offer its normal services, the company introduced in-app summaries of global media reporting about the situation unfolding in the country, to keep its users informed.

The app’s developers also put together what would become a lifeline for many Ukrainians trying to survive missile strikes and shelling.

"We created some content for Ukrainians. How to behave when there is danger, for example. What to take to the bomb shelter, because in the very first weeks, there wasn’t so much information about this," Melnyk recounted.

"We gathered the information and published it in our app. So, the app is free for Ukrainians and they can access this important content. It can save their lives".

The wealth of content made available to beleaguered Ukrainian citizens through the app is ever-expanding, with resources on how to look after their mental health now being made available too.

Headway
The app's interface showing content from its Ukraine War Project. - Headway

Anticipating Russia’s invasion

In the days leading up to Russia’s so-called "special operation," Headway readied itself for what many in the country foresaw as an inevitable hostile action from its neighbour.

"One week before the war started, we knew something would happen and we started to create an emergency plan, so we booked a hotel and some buses because we knew we wanted to save our people and move them to a safe place as well as their families," Melnyk said.

"So, we created this emergency plan and on February 24, we took this plan and acted".

In two days, the company successfully uprooted its entire business, moving its Kyiv workers and their families out of the capital to safer areas in western Ukraine or Poland. But it wasn’t without difficulty.

"The first week was very, very complicated," she recalled.

"It was hard to concentrate, to work, but we had really good processes even though people were moving and we had no Internet at some points. But still the business was very sustainable".

Headway
A Headway employee takes a selfie of her working on her laptop in her bathtub. - Headway

Many employees now work remotely from home using video conferencing tools to keep in touch with their colleagues.

At times, this has meant taking appropriate precautions. Some of the company’s staff have taken to working from their bathrooms - which are usually windowless and at the centre of the apartment - to have greater protection from flying glass and falling masonry should their home be struck by a missile.

Headway’s foresight to make preparations to shield its employees from the full impact of the invasion has arguably put it in a better position to help others, too.

"I think we made some really good decisions on infrastructure and we’re in the top 10 per cent of those who were well prepared," Melnyk said.

"The company is actually really well prepared because other businesses - our friends - that have known this, they have come to our office when there is no electricity and we give them some space in the kitchen so they can come and work".

Headway's future goals

When she spoke to Euronews Next in Lisbon, Melnyk remained confident of a Ukrainian victory against Russia despite the uncertain future that lies ahead. But what does this mean for Headway and Ukraine’s tech sector as a whole?

"The Ukrainian tech ecosystem is very united just now," she said.

"When someone doesn’t have electricity or has some problems, we can help. If we have any problems, we can just ask other companies for help. It is really amazing. It’s hard; it’s a challenging time, but amazing for this unity".

As part of its efforts to support the sector, Headway is continuing to hire tech workers who have been displaced or lost their jobs because of the war. It is also continuing its R&D projects to further innovate in the edtech field.

We want people to continue growing because education is at the core of the future success of a world without wars.

"We are planning to develop our core app with gamification and personalisation features to make it more fun and easy to use," Melnyk explained. "So, we have the strategy to expand this easy content. Because reading is not easy for everyone, we want to make it entertaining".

Headway also has ambitions of expanding the reach of its products, including entering new markets with content in Portuguese, German and Japanese. Above all else, the company is determined to be one of Ukraine’s success stories in spite of the ongoing fighting.

"It’s like a superpower," Melnyk said of pushing through the challenges the war is posing for tech companies like hers.

"We are still strong. We are working. We are focused. We want investors to come to Ukraine and invest in Ukrainian start-ups," she added.

"We want people to continue growing because education is at the core of the future success of a world without wars".