The fresh-faced blond Donets is the Nikolayev oblast-born engineering student who’s leading one of the two Ukrainian teams that will compete in the European Shell Eco-marathon in France this May. (The other is from Kharkiv, and is led by a student there named Sasha Chernyshov.) The Eco-marathon is a sort of yearly jamboree for tech students interested in environmentally-responsible automobile design – brought to the world by those apparently scrupulously green men and women at Shell, the world’s largest oil company. What happens is that student teams all over Europe assemble at a race track to show off and compete in their innovative model cars. The point is to see, for example, whose home-built vehicle can cruise the loop the longest on a mere litre of petrol, or zip around the banked curves while pumping out the fewest emissions.
And this year, for the first time, Ukraine – actually, the whole post-Soviet space - will be represented at the event, in the persons of Donets and his half-dozen KPI teammates. They’re in the process of raising the money to build an automobile that will participate in the Eco-marathon’s UrbanConcept category, which includes vehicles that resemble the sorts of cars that you see on the street in real life (as opposed to the parallel Prototype category, the vehicles in which tend to be glorious exercises in far-out futuristic engineering). “Last year Shell held a presentation at KPI about this marathon, about this competition in Ukraine’s institutions of higher learning,” says Donets, who speaks with the clear-eyed sincerity that one admires in a young pup of 20. “It turned out that among the people who was most interested in it was me.” The crowd that assembled in the library of what remains one of the top technical schools in the former Eastern Bloc voted on whom to send as an observer to the 2007 Eco-marathon, in Nogaro, France. Donets won the vote. He and the rest of the Ukrainian delegation were charged to, as he puts it, “go and take a look at what this marathon is, and where it is, and how it turned out.” It was Donets’ first trip outside Ukraine. “We were guests,” he says of his French sojourn. “They showed us everything, told us everything. We walked around, took a peek, got interested, tried things out, talked things over with the teams taking part, got to know what their problems were. We spent three days there that way, and then when we came back here we were a hundred percent convinced that we
The students are running up against the barrier that’s bedeviled innovators since the beginning: a lack of funding
wanted to represent our own country and our own university in this marathon. As soon as we got back we started collecting people who’d be interested in this sort of project, who would share our ideas.” What’s motivating Donets and his colleagues? “Any person who’s alive right now, especially we young people for whom everything is in front of us - we have to live in a good, admirable way, and preserve things for our children, especially since the environment is one of the biggest problems there is, particularly in Ukraine. You see that in Kyiv especially, with the huge number of cars, with the air pollution. There’s nothing to breathe, it’s hard. In Ukraine we’re going through a period now when we’re moving from old methods of production to new ones, and there are a lot of old technologies that weren’t geared for environmental safety. So for Ukraine this is an ecological problem that’s very, very relevant. That’s of first importance for us. “Second, this marathon gives us, as future engineers, as young engineers, the chance to test out our powers as students in a big international project and to get a sense of how much of the knowledge we get in the institute can be used in real life – that is, we can see what we should be concentrating on in school in the first place.”
Bring the Cash
It’s at this point that you remember one of the prime realities about Ukraine: ninety percent of everything good that’s going on here is being done by people under 40. It’s extraordinary. You listen to Donets and you think, Good God, everything’s going to be alright. On the other hand, less than three months from the Nogaro festivities’ start date on 22 May, Donets and his student team are running up against the barrier that’s bedeviled innovators since the beginning of time: a lack of funding. One of the remarkable (and wise) stipulations of the Shell event is that while the oil giant covers the event’s basic costs, student teams are required to fund their projects themselves – because that’s the way research tends to work these days, in the triumphant era of the global free market. “We’ve already worked up the concept for our project and now we’re searching for sponsors,” Donets says, his confidence not flagging for a second. “Since Ukraine is probably a little bit unready for a project of this scale, we’ve had some problems finding a sponsor. Right now we’re making contact with potential sponsors and looking for companies and people who might be interested in this sort of project.” I suggest he might approach the European companies in Kyiv. “Maybe, but every European country has at least one team from its own country,” he answers, “and it’s more interesting for them to help their own teams. Though we are turning to companies that are represented in Ukraine that we think might potentially be interested. We’re turning to everybody and asking them for help.” So if you’re reading this and you’re in a decision-making capacity at a corporation here in Kyiv, then come on, already: open up the coffers. Donets and his team work efficiently, so they don’t need much. “We’ve estimated that our budget comes to ten thousand dollars,” Donets says, “but the problem is that we have to spend the bulk of that on transporting our vehicle and getting the team to France.” Donets, whose intimidating academic specialty is “the equipment and installation of chemical and electrical-processing production” (it actually sounded clearer in Russian), is confident that he’ll be able to raise the money and build the car in the remaining time. It will help that for their first Eco-marathon the Ukrainians are sticking to what Donets describes as a petrol-powered car of “maximum simplicity.” They’ll get crazy with the innovations next year. “We want to represent Ukraine in a good light and show people what Ukraine is all about, that Ukraine is also interested in all these technologies and trends, that it’s also got a bunch of good engineers and specialists who can work, and already are working, on energysaving technologies and who have a lot of interesting ideas and want to show them to the world.” Amen to that, son. He pauses. “But now we have to hurry a bit,” he admits. “We can do it. We still have time.”