Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Ukraine Startup Translates Videos For Zelensky As He Adjusts To Work In A War Zone

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Launched in 2021, start up vidby has AI-powered software that translates and copies videos in 70 languages. But since the second day of the war in Ukraine, founder and Kiev-born Alexander Konovalov has been using it to help defense efforts in a unique way. In particular, he translates videos for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into 20 to 30 languages.

“Like any citizen, I want to help defend my country,” said Konavalov, who is based in Switzerland, where he moved from Kiev three years ago. He has also done everything possible to help his 15 employees who are now (or until recently) in Ukraine.

Konovalov initially started translating videos on his own, almost every day, sending them to journalists and PR agencies. More recently, he works directly with Zelensky and the State Department, translating only specific videos at their request. Most are about 10 minutes long, although one featured an interview of about two hours with Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine. He has worked on about 75 videos in total.

Evacuations and bombings

The company helped evacuate three workers to nearby European countries around the start of the war and is currently working with two others. (They are all women with children). Some have since returned to their homes.

Some workers’ homes have been destroyed by bombing. For example, the company’s Chief Technical Officer is from Kharkiv and his house was destroyed by heavy bombing early on. “He has nowhere to go,” says Konovalov. A Kremenchuk designer, who lived 200 meters from a shopping center bombed in June, is preparing to evacuate to another country this week or next.

Air Raid Interruptions

In March, operations were virtually shut down, but Konovalov got things up and running again a month later. He has continued to pay employees their salaries and created a flexible work schedule that allows 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.

Yet it is not easy. Conference calls are often interrupted by air raid sirens. When that happens, employees excuse themselves and go to a bomb shelter and return to their desks when they can. “It’s part of everyday life,” Konovalov says. “And being able to focus on the job distracts them from the dangers they face.” Developers, who are mainly located in Kiev and Liviv, often work from air raid shelters.

They also volunteer in the war effort. His CTO volunteers in the military on weekends, helping weave protective nets for trenches, for example.

A big turn

In 2013, before launching vidby, Konovalov started a company called Technology Improves the World. That company targeted consumers, with Droid Translator, a video calling service that provides automatic real-time speech-to-speech translation. In 2021, he decided to go big and target businesses, taking three months to develop a minimally viable product and another three months to officially launch. The platform uses AI to translate and dub videos. There is also an option to use real people to correct errors in the results of the automatic speech recognition function.

Konovalov also sees his company’s mission as a larger social purpose: to help users understand content in their own language and to “preserve humanity’s linguistic diversity,” he says.

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