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Ukrainian innovations in NATO: fantasy or reality?

Ukrainian innovations in NATO: fantasy or reality?

Катерина Супрун Катерина Супрун
Ministry of Digital Transformation NATO Technologies Ukraine-NATO War with Russia World

Krakow hosted a packed hall at AGH University where Ukrainian officials, military personnel, MilTech companies, NATO member state representatives, and investors gathered for the NATO-Ukraine Defense Innovators Forum.

The forum’s main goal was to explore ways to support the development of Ukrainian innovations and their impact on the battlefield.

“The forum brings together our Ukrainian partners and allies to help Ukraine today and strengthen allied forces for tomorrow,” said David van Weel, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Innovation, Hybrid, and Cyber.

During the forum’s opening, he emphasized the importance of collaboration to create a common ecosystem for Ukrainian innovations and partner countries.

Девід ван Віл помічник генерального секретаря НАТО з інновацій, гібридних технологій та кібербезпеки, Краків, червень 2024 Фото: NATO

The Alliance is ready to provide expertise and assistance, recognizing that technology development is crucial not only for military technology but also for the economy’s future.

NATO and Ukrainian innovations

What exactly is meant by NATO’s support?

Answering this question, David van Wiel noted that NATO experts can provide expertise based on feedback from operators of certain systems and attract the capacity of large manufacturers in NATO member countries to scale innovative solutions.

“We are trying to bring together the community of operators and innovators who are on the front lines trying to make something better tomorrow with experts from other parts of the alliance who can help us with these issues,” said David van Weel.

This is exactly why the forum was held – to share experiences and ideas.

The NATO-Ukraine Defense Innovators Forum brought together more than 400 innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, academics, researchers, and end-user operators from 17 countries, including more than 100 startups.

“As NATO, we don’t build factories, but we are a platform where we can bring together all the people who build factories or those who have money. And we can point them in the right direction, show them where we think the future is headed, and what investments should be made. This is what I was talking about, where we want to help build an innovation ecosystem that will have a lasting impact not only during the war, but also become an export product when the war is over,” stated David van Weel, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Innovation, Hybrid, and Cyber.

Another important topic discussed in expert circles is the involvement of commercial solutions for defense needs.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has shown how commercial solutions can have an impact on the battlefield.

DIU – Defense Innovation Unit

The U.S. Department of Defense has a special department called DIU – Defense Innovation Unit, which focuses on the integration of commercial technologies for the needs of the military. The question here is not just whether to use a commercial or civilian solution for the military. It must be safe, there must be no logistical problems, and the software must be updated quickly.

“What we have to have is the ability to iterate quickly and develop solutions when the enemy develops something that counteracts what we are doing. The only way to do that is to act at the speed of need. Commercial firms can do this,” said Trent Emeneker, project manager at DIU.

The procurement and planning processes at the U.S. Department of Defense are lengthy and inflexible. And it is the use of commercial solutions that can have the proper effect when introducing changes on the battlefield. Therefore, an algorithm for engaging companies is under development, and solutions are currently being tested to see how they can work.

For example, there is the Blue UAS project. This is a list of platforms that can be procured for the needs of US Department of Defense users. All of them are subject to a technology security review. The list is updated, and new platforms are added to it or can be excluded.

“Six to seven years is pretty quick for a traditional DoD program. What we can do is to take a commercial off-the-shelf platform or component, software, within ninety days, analyze it, certify that it complies with the law, conduct a cybersecurity analysis, and put it on the list of approved operations within the Department of Defense. Ninety days is too long, but we are constantly working to get better,” said Trent Emeneker, project manager at DIU.

However, this focus is primarily on American companies, with the prospect of attracting European companies from NATO member states.

DIANA and NIF

In addition, NATO has its own accelerator for startups – DIANA (Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic). It is open to companies registered in one of the alliance’s member countries.

In 2023, the topics covered by this accelerator were energy security, secure information exchange, and monitoring and surveillance.

DIANA focuses on commercial startups that offer security solutions. Selected companies receive grant funding to develop and demonstrate their technologies, access testing and evaluation resources in the alliance, and meet investors and end-users of the technologies to support and implement them.

In addition, there is NIF – NATO Innovation Found – a separate venture capital fund supported by 24 NATO member states. This fund invests in science and engineering startups working with defense technologies.

DIANA and NIF are tools for attracting commercial companies and startups, as well as stimulating the technology market for defense.

Ukrainian proposal

So it is natural that the Ukrainian Defense Tech cluster Brave1, together with representatives of the government, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and Ukrainian companies, are participants in the forum.

“Ukraine is already the best R&D center for any innovation. Today we get the technology for testing, and tomorrow we will scale it hundreds of times,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister for Innovation, Education, Science and Technology Development and Minister of Digital Transformation.

At the same time, Ukrainian innovations need support here and now. This includes investments in R&D, testing, and scaling—particularly for solutions that the military can actually use on the battlefield. The largest sectors for these solutions are unmanned systems, communications, electronic warfare, and radio reconnaissance.

Procurement of equipment from Ukrainian manufacturers is currently limited by the Ukrainian budget. In addition, during martial law, there is a ban on the export of defense products from Ukrainian manufacturers. Therefore, one way to raise funds for technology development is to allow Ukrainian startups to participate in investment programs and raise funds from international sources.

“We have to create this infrastructure for companies in Ukraine, and we are fully interested in keeping them in Ukraine. That is why it is important for us to be supported not only with machinery and equipment, but also to sign contracts with international companies and provide grants to Ukrainian companies for their research and development. [We also need to] build research centers with the necessary facilities and equipment for small companies that can come and use them,” said Nataliia Kushnerska, Head of Defense Tech at Brave1.

Наталія Кушнерська на NATO-Ukraine Defense Innovators Forum, Краків, червень 2024 Фото: facebook сторінка Brave1

Where to look for investors?

All of these initiatives – DIU, DIANA, NIF – are tools for companies and startups in the United States or NATO member states. For a Ukrainian company to participate in the DIANA accelerator, for example, it must be registered abroad. Therefore, these opportunities are currently closed to Ukrainian companies operating within Ukraine.

However, there are still opportunities to attract private investors who also participate in the forum. While there is no set algorithm or specific plan, there is ongoin dialog.

Ukrainian startups and participants of Brave1 note that such meetings enable direct communications with businesses and potential investors, allowing them to showcase the potential of products that have already been created and are operational.

Дискусійна панель на NATO-Ukraine Defense Innovators Forum, Краків, червень 2024 Фото: DIU

Meetings with business are part of the NATO-Ukraine Defense Innovators Forum. Although potential contracts are not disclosed, and such agreements are not signed immediately, these meetings serve as a platform to demonstrate the potential of Ukrainian innovations.

Ukraine already has examples of attracting funds from partner countries for the purchase of domestically produced weapons. For instance, Ukraine and Denmark signed a memorandum for such a purchase.

Additionally, the Ministry of Strategic Industries recently showcased eco-friendly technologies as part of the ZBROYARI company: Manufacturing Freedom project. This included demonstrating evacuation and logistics platforms to representatives of partner countries that, for example, have restrictions on financing the purchase of lethal weapons.

Private business can also be a source of funds for Ukrainian MilTech. The forum in Krakow demonstrated the interest of all parties in attracting investors.

“That is why we urge our partners to come to Ukraine, adopt our expertise, and invest. The development of Ukrainian DefenseTech is beneficial to the entire democratic world and NATO countries in particular,” said Oleksandr Borniakov, Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine on IT industry development.

Олександр Борняков, заступник Міністра цифрової трансформації з питань розвитку IT, Девід ван Віл помічник генерального секретаря НАТО з інновацій, гібридних технологій та кібербезпеки та Ліз Макнеллі Янг, заступник директора з комерційних операцій DIU, Краків, червень 2024 Фото: DIU

In addition, the forum hosted the Automated Visual Guidance Hackathon. The task was to build an FPV drone with automatic target recognition, automatic guidance, and targeting capabilities.

The prize fund of the hackathon was $100,000. The first place was awarded to the Ukrainian-Norwegian team Sensorama Lab/KEF Robotics, while the third place went to the Ukrainian team AI Autonomix.

Ministry of Digital Transformation NATO Technologies Ukraine-NATO War with Russia World