“We raised $2.5 million during the war.” Interview with Zibra AI co-founder

Last week, it was reported that the Ukrainian deep-tech company Zibra AI raised $500,000 from the Speedrun accelerator launched by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). This is the very first round for startups in the accelerator. Interestingly, Zibra AI was the only CEE company among the 32 finalists selected for the program and received funding (there were 1,600 applicants in total).

The company’s main product is Zibra Effects, which automates the creation of 3D resources and visual effects in game development, metaverse, and other related areas. The startup was founded in 2021 and is based in Kyiv.

In an interview with an AIN.Capital editor, the Zibra AI co-founder and CEO Oleksandr Petrenko told why they applied to Speedrun, what is the current stage of the product, and how they managed to raise millions of investments amid the full-scale invasion.

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Oleksandr Petrenko. All photos in this interview were provided by the interviewee.

Why did you decide to apply for the Speedrun program? How did you manage to pass the selection? What are your expectations from the program?

Since the startup was launched, we have dreamed of working with the a16z team. In October 2022, we managed to meet several partners of the fund. After that, we continued communicating, exchanging updates, and meeting during gaming conferences.

After one of these meetings, I saw a post on LinkedIn by Andrew Lee, who wrote about the launch of the Speedrun program.

I intuitively filled out the form and immediately received a letter saying I was the first who did so.

The Epic Mega Grant from Epic Games, which Zibra AI received in 2022, also helped me to get into the accelerator. It was an additional validation from one of the most prominent players in the tech industry that added credibility to what we were working on.

However, the team, the right product, and the fantastic demo we prepared for the final selection played a crucial role in getting us into Speedrun.

It is reported that the company has already raised $2.5 million in total. How did you manage to raise investments during the war?

Yes, that’s right. In total, we raised $2.5 million during the war. Part of this investment is related to the seed round, which we will announce very soon.

In 2022, we completed a $1.2 million pre-seed round, and now we are working on closing the seed round, in which a16z invested.

It wasn’t easy to attract investments. We met war in the fundraising process.

In early February, we had a few commits, but the first email I received on the day of the full-scale invasion was from one of the potential investors who refused to invest in us because of the war.

I was devastated. But later, we realized we had two options: either to give up and close the project because funding was minimal or continue working no matter what. We chose the second option, and by the end of March, I could close the first tickets from angel investors for more than $300,000.

We decided to close the angel tickets first because getting venture capital investments is a very long process. We wouldn’t have had time to do it physically.

We managed to attract investments thanks to the coordinated work of the company’s management and co-founders Vlad Zavadskyi and Den Dmytrenko. We should also mention our COO Roman Mohylnyi and CTO Oleksandr Puchka, who were also actively involved in the fundraising process. However, of course, all this would not have happened without the phenomenal performance of the entire team. They not only actively volunteered from the beginning of the war but also worked almost 24/7, implementing milestone after milestone. The tech company Roosh also played an important role, helping us with its networking and constantly supporting our team.

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Receiving angel investment eliminated the threat that we would run out of money at some point. We made several strategic iterations and initiated negotiations with several venture capital funds. Then, SID Venture Partners and Gismart helped us a lot, supporting us with more significant investments and enabling us to close the pre-seed round.

Currently, there is a boom in AI technologies in the world. Has it helped you with fundraising in any way?

At the end of 2022, the world saw a boom in the field of generative AI, which we have been working in for almost three years. This has made it easier for us to access venture capital funds but also complicated our work. Over the past eight months, many companies have announced their solutions based on generative AI, which has caused a lot of noise. It has become more difficult for funds to determine which projects are really worth investing in and which are just trying to raise money amid the hype.

At what stage is the product? Do you already have customers and users? Please share the traction figures.

Our product is very complex. It takes years to complete its development. We cannot afford to wait, so we build it based on the principle that each component can be implemented separately.

We started with water physics, then added smoke and fire, tissue simulation, and much more. Now we are working on adding functionality for generating 3D objects and packing it all into one platform to create 3D content for all virtual worlds.

Several components of this extensive product, namely solutions for creating realistic water, smoke, and fire physics, are already on the market.

Zibra AI technologies currently have more than 90,000 users worldwide. It is a significant achievement considering that we launched our first solution, Zibra Liquids, just before the full-scale war in early 2022.

How many people are in your team, and how many more do you want to hire? Are they all in Ukraine?

There are 25 people in the team now. Twenty-three of them are in Ukraine. Even during the full-scale war, we expanded the team by hiring an engineer from Poland and a sales manager from in the United States.