Launched in 2021, startup vidby has AI-powered software that translates and dubs videos in 70 languages. But since the second day of the Ukraine war, founder and Kyiv native Alexander Konovalov has been using it to help the defense effort in a unique way. Specifically, he translates videos for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in 20 to 30 languages.
“Like any citizen, I want to help defend my country,” says Konavalov, who is based in Switzerland, where he moved from Kyiv three years ago. He’s also been doing everything he can to help his 15 employees who are in Ukraine now (or were until recently).
Konovalov initially started translating videos on his own, pretty much every day, sending them to journalists and public relations firms. More recently, he’s been working directly with Zelensky and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and only translating specific videos at their request. Most are about 10 minutes long, although one featured an approximately two-hour interview with Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady. He’s worked on about 75 videos in all.
Evacuations and Bombing Attacks
The company helped evacuate three employees around the start of the war to nearby European countries and is in the process of working with two more. (They’re all women with children). Since then, some have returned to their homes.
Some employees’ homes have been destroyed in bombing attacks. The company’s Chief Technical Officer, for example, is from Kharkiv and his house was destroyed in heavy bombing early on. “He has nowhere to go back to,” says Konovalov. A designer from Kremenchuk, who lived 200 meters from a shopping mall bombed in June, is getting ready to evacuate to another country this week or next.
Air Raid Interruptions
In March, operations pretty much shut down, but Konovalov got things up and running a month later. He’s paid employees their salaries throughout and created a flexible work schedule, allowing people to work at different times during the day and evening. “We’ve been able to develop a process that works for everyone,” he says.
Nonetheless, it’s not easy. Conference calls are frequently interrupted by air raid sirens. When that happens, employees excuse themselves and head for a bomb shelter, returning to their desks when they can. “It’s part of every day life,” says Konovalov. “And being able to focus on work helps distract them from the dangers they face.” Developers, who are mostly in Kyiv and Liviv, often work from bomb shelters.
They also volunteer with the war effort. His CTO volunteers with army on weekends, for example, helping to weave protective nets for trenches.
A Big Pivot
In 2013, before launching vidby, Konovalov started a company called Technology Improves the World. That business focused on consumers, with Droid Translator, a video call service offering automatic real-time voice-to-voice translation. In 2021, he decided to pivot in a big way and target businesses, taking three months to develop a minimum viable product and another three to launch officially. The platform uses AI to translate and dub videos. There’s also an option to use real people to correct errors in the results of the automatic speech recognition function.
Konovalov also regards his company’s mission as having a larger societal purpose—helping users understand content in their own language and “preserve the linguistic diversity of humankind,” he says.