Less than three years ago, hundreds of tech workers and startup founders from Belarus opposed to the regime in Minsk took refuge in neighbouring Poland.
Warsaw welcomed them as refugees, promising fast-track visas, financial aid and jobs in the country’s booming IT ecosystem. For Poland’s government, it was a humanitarian move that also made business sense, boosting its emerging startup scene with thousands of skilled Belarusian engineers.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland has had to shift its focus to accommodating millions of Ukrainian refugees, while Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s backing of Moscow has led to suspicion of immigrants from Belarus.
“Since the war started, it has gotten harder for Belarusians,” says Tania Marinich, CEO and founder of Imaguru, which now operates out of Vilnius, Warsaw and Madrid.
“We fought the regime. We fought it a lot. But now, who cares?”
Ecosystem in exile
Although largely based on state-controlled industrial and agricultural conglomerates, tech has always had an outsized role in the Belarusian economy, with IT companies benefiting from a special regulatory regime, including low taxes, social security benefits, free movement of capital and little administrative control from the state.
A simplified residence permit procedure for foreign employees and founders, combined with high wages and historically good IT education, made the sector one of the driving forces of the country’s economy.
With a population of roughly 10m people, Belarus had over 1,000 IT firms with 70k employees prior to the war.
While these were mostly software houses and IT support companies, they helped to create a local startup ecosystem: Belarus is home to international successes such as unicorn SaaS startup PandaDoc, and Palta, a healthtech and owner of period-tracking app Flo.
Since 2016, the number of the country’s startups — operating mostly in B2B SaaS and healthtech — grew sharply, reaching almost 400 in 2021, according to a report about the ecosystem prepared by Civitta.
But a violent state crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2021 led many entrepreneurs to leave the country. By some estimates, 58% of all startup founders had left Belarus, mostly to neighbouring Poland, the Baltic states and — prior to the war — Ukraine.
Indeed, 2022 was the first year in almost a decade which saw a decline in the number of the country’s startups.
“We were probably the very first startup ecosystem in exile in the world,” says Marinich at Imaguru.
Poland — business harbour?
In August 2020, hundreds of thousands of Belarusian people took to the streets in the biggest protests of the country’s history, after Lukashenko falsified the results of the presidential election.
After a couple of weeks of relatively peaceful demonstrations, the regime began a crackdown on protesters, with many ending up in prison.
Marinich tells Sifted that entrepreneurs and tech workers were the driving force of the revolution — and they were also the most exposed to repression from the regime.
Maciej Sadowski, head of the NGO Startup Hub Poland, says that in the aftermath of the protest, he got more than 150 pings on different social media channels from startup founders who said they needed to relocate.
Over the weekend, he teamed up with the government to organise a scheme that was later dubbed “Poland. Business Harbour”. Its dual role was to help people in need while also boosting the local IT ecosystem.
Startup Hub Poland offered immediate assistance, financial and logistical, to 16 startups that needed to relocate.
It later developed into a programme that offered a fast-track visa scheme and work permits for workers and their families.
As of August 2023, almost 87k Belarusians have obtained the Poland. Business Harbour visa, according to official data — almost 50k of them came after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
But in the three years since the programme began, Belarusian founders say that the war has changed the way they’re perceived in their new home.
Marinich’s Imaguru was one of the oldest independent startup hubs and coworking spaces in Belarus before it was closed down by Lukashenko’s regime in 2021. She was forced to relocate to elsewhere in Europe. In Warsaw, she began looking for an office space at the beginning of 2022.
“We spent almost one year to find a place,” she says.
Marinich said she was turned down by three potential landlords because she was a Belarusian citizen.
After opening its Warsaw office, Marinich was told of many problems Belarusian founders were facing in opening bank accounts, registering companies and raising funds. Often deals would be cancelled for no reason, she says.
Anatoli Kavalenka, the cofounder of real estate startup RDS-BIM, came to Warsaw in October 2020 as one of the beneficiaries of the Poland. Business Harbour scheme. In Belarus, he’d taken part in every protest, he says and decided to flee when the police arrests intensified.
At the beginning of 2022, Kavalenka was closing a funding round and registering his company when suddenly his legal advisory team refused to continue working with him.
“I got a call that they can’t work with us because they can’t work with Belarusian entities,” he tells Sifted, in perfect Polish.
“How can you define me as a Belarusian entity if I’ve been working in Poland, my company is registered in Poland, what does it change that I have Belarusian citizenship?”
His next challenge was opening a bank account. “When I came in 2020, I just went to a bank, showed my passport, showed my visa and could have had an account in every single bank in the country. After the war, everyone had reservations, additional documents were needed. And sometimes they just refused.
“We went to five different banks [and eventually] I had to prove and write a letter, a statement, that I’m not linked to the regime, that I’d run away from it.”
One thing is dealing with the country’s bureaucracy; the other is convincing investors to put their money into your business when the country you’re from is considered to be an enemy of the western world.
Even before the war, Belarusian founders didn’t raise much private capital: in 2021, the country’s startups raised $412m, driven by megarounds of PandaDoc and WorkFusion; in 2022, it was only $22m, according to Civitta’s report.
“Investors don’t want to invest in Belarusian startups,” says Marinich. “Why should they make trouble? It's much better to invest in a [Polish] or Ukrainian startup. Many accelerator programmes have closed their doors to Belarusian founders.”
“Everytime when you meet an international investor, corporation or player, you have to start by apologising for being Belarusian.”
Helene Malyutina, the founder of an early-stage parenting app startup, Fams, came to Warsaw in 2021 and is now fundraising a $700k seed round. She has developed a dual strategy of how to approach investors, depending on whether they are from the US or Europe.
“When we talk with American VCs, it's really important in the first sentence to be clear about our position [towards the regime] and to be clear about the situation. “Most of them don’t know anything about the protests in 2020,” she says.
“European VCs and angel investors know about the situation and maybe one doesn’t have to explain a lot about this. But in the US, they usually don’t know anything.”
Andrei Palunosik is the founder of Ama Care, a cosmetic-checker app that has recently raised €500k from Firstpick, a Lithuanian VC and angel investors. He also believes that the war has affected their fundraising process.
“Typically, you raise your pre-seed round right where you're based. But I had no connections [in Poland] and there was no interest from local early-stage funds,” he says.
“We looked to the Baltics and, thankfully, we managed to close the round,” he says. “Given our experience, I'm uncertain about approaching local funds for our next round as it seems to be a long shot. Our goal is to go directly to the funds from the US and UK.”
Borys Musielak, a GP at Polish SMOK VC, sees a clear difference between Belarusian and Russian founders — SMOK has already invested in a Belarusian SaaS startup Bitskout.
“All Belarusians I know who live in Poland fled Belarus after the violent crackdown on mass protests in 2020. Many of them cannot safely return to the country without facing legal consequences or even imprisonment,” he says,
Musielak said that, while he’s scouting for more Belarusian teams that are based in Poland, he wouldn’t invest in a team that is still based — or even registered — in Belarus.
Despite the challenges, Belarusians are trying to nourish their ecosystem in exile.
As well as Imaguru, another community group Ū Hub organises events and pitching sessions for Belarusian founders who now live in Warsaw.
Manager Veronika Lindorenko says Ū Hub started with 10 people in 2021 and there are now 1,500 members in the community’s Telegram channel.
Lindorenko says that she has heard rumours about the hardships of the Belarusian community but has never witnessed any of it herself. She says her team has good cooperation with local VCs and organisations such as Google for Startups or Cambridge Innovation Center.
“People like going to Polish events. I've never faced any rage on behalf of the Polish organisations,” she says,
But she also says that the Belarusian community tends to stick together. Their events and social media are usually in Russian and the startups tend to hire Belarusians. Even the communication channels they use — Telegram over WhatsApp and LinkedIn — are different from those used by the Polish ecosystem.
This is also changing. As startups grow, they have to open up to Polish employees and investors, and vice versa. Founders say the more time that passes from the beginning of the war, the fewer problems the community seems to face.
“Of course, my situation changed after the war,” says Kavalenka at RDS-BIM.
“But for me personally, I got more than I could have ever got in Belarus. My startup had no chance to survive in Belarus because I would have never fundraised. Thanks to Poland, the Poles, I now have what I have.”