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Why is Eugene Kaspersky funding a travel accelerator during COVID-19?

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Eugene Kaspersky made a name for himself in cybersecurity as CEO of Kaspersky Labs, but the Russian security expert has a new passion project: he’s funding an online accelerator that aims to support entrepreneurs who are building travel and tourism startups.

Businesses that apply must have a focus on Russia, though the accelerator is open to startups based anywhere. There are four categories of focus: travel tech, infrastructure, social impact and sustainability. Kaspersky isn’t taking equity in selected teams, which means founders who get into the program will benefit from free support.

Ten startups will be selected for a two-week online bootcamp, with a virtual demo day planned for June 25. The deadline for applications is May 29, 2020.

We spoke to Kaspersky about setting up the program and why he’s so keen to support a sector that’s being hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TechCrunch: What is Kaspersky Exploring Russia? Explain the key details of how the program will work and what sort of support will be offered to selected entrepreneurs/startups?

Eugene Kaspersky: The program is a tourism accelerator targeting young travel startups. We decided to help the tourism industry as an industry that has been hit so severely by the pandemic. I think now is the time to… turn life’s lemons into lemonade by using this self-isolation period for personal development and improvement of business projects. We’ll be accepting applications from different industry streams — tech startups, projects that make extreme and leisure tourism more accessible, business projects that are socially significant in the travel and tourism fields and projects that have a positive impact on sustainable development. We’ll choose the 10 most interesting and promising projects to enter the online educational program with lectures, one-to-one coaching sessions and presentations from industry experts. At the end of the program, we‘ll chose three finalists on the demo day, where all 10 participants will be able to pitch their startups to the jury.

You’ve made your name in cybersecurity. Some people may wonder why you’re investing your own resource in travel/tourism startups when many types of businesses are facing huge challenges as a result of the pandemic — so what’s your personal interest in the sector? And what made you choose an accelerator as your way to help?

I’m a passionate traveler and explorer myself. Usually for the better half of the year, if not more, I travel around the world for business and leisure. Our company has offices in more than 30 different locations around the world, so I have a busy schedule. But apart from business travel, my hobby is adventure tourism. I love hiking, backpacking. The perfect holiday for me is to explore some new volcanoes, climb some mountains and just get away from city life.

And I also love to explore Russia, which I feel is extremely underrated as a tourist destination. And I hope our program will help with this. So my personal interest is to open Russia to the world and at the same time motivate young entrepreneurs to make the local infrastructure better and more accessible. That’s it, no strings attached! And the accelerator format seemed the best fit for the pandemic, when we’re all stuck at home: the best thing to do is learn something new and useful.

Tell us what kind of entrepreneurs/startups and ideas you’re looking to support — who should apply to this program?

The ideas or existing startups should be Russia-oriented or be applicable for use in Russia. It would be great to see fresh, exciting ideas that tackle existing problems of the industry. There are a great many of those in Russia, as tourism infrastructure leaves much to be desired, if you move away from big cities. So I’m sure there are lots of problems to be solved and lots of business to be set up.

How is the program being funded? Also, can you tell us about some of the people who will be mentoring selected entrepreneurs/startups?

The program is fully funded by our company. We perceive it as a CSR [corporate social responsibility] project to some extent. We have a big portfolio of different sponsorships and partnerships, including support of strong and inspirational people around the world like artists, scientists and athletes. This project is aimed at supporting those in need with a helping hand during this awful pandemic. We have also announced a free six-month subscription to our security solutions for all medical organizations around the world right now. We feel that these organizations are highly vulnerable at present and want to support them and keep them safe.

As for the mentors, I think they’re the real jewels of this project: industry experts, tourism professionals. Some may be possible investors, others simply top pros in the travel industry. I’m sure most of the applicants will not have a possibility to meet such an impressive crowd again, let alone enjoy their company as personal mentors for their projects!

Has the program had any support or encouragement from the Russian state, given the requirement that projects be “Russia-oriented?”

We didn’t even think about getting any support when organizing this initiative, so we’ve made no agreements in this regard. Our project is independent and was born inside the company. But we’re open to discussion.

You’ve suggested the pandemic will change the tourism industry “irrevocably,” and right now we’re seeing major travel/tourism companies suffering very heavily (Airbnb just announced staff layoffs of 25%, for example), so how do you see the sector being changed by COVID-19? Do you view this crisis as an opportunity to rethink how and why we travel for the better?

I’m sure the travel sector will change, as many others will. We’re already facing an economic recession, which will obviously affect the industry. People will have less money for travel. But I also feel that the current situation has shown that travel has become an important part of our lives — even a necessity. Compared to just 10-20 years ago, the world has become a much more open place. Obviously the internet and technology has helped boost travel and make it easier, breaking language barriers, improving logistics, navigation, making travel more affordable.

This is a great achievement in my opinion. And these achievements will not be taken away by the COVID pandemic. I’m sure that slowly the world will return to its normal habits. There might be a decline in business travel, as online-conferencing has shown us over the past two months that almost everything business related can be done online — meetings, conferences, interviews. And it’s much cheaper and more time efficient! But leisure travel is of course a different thing. We travel the world to meet real people, see the sights with our own eyes, taste the foreign cuisine. Online communication can’t help with this.

Are you hoping your accelerator program spots and supports the next Brian Chesky?

Of course it would be great to find the next big name in the industry — a new and brilliant idea that will change the world of travel. But finding 10 great projects that can help the industry evolve is also a goal good enough for us.

Your program has a strong focus on social and sustainable travel ideas. But before the pandemic hit the travel industry was facing a lot of criticism around “over-tourism,” i.e. the concentration of demand, with associated negative impacts on local communities and the wider environment. How do you see the next generation of entrepreneurs playing a role in tackling that sort of imbalance and making sure travel can be both social and sustainable?

I agree that there are a lot of problems around unsustainable tourism. This is one of the reasons we decided to invite socially-oriented projects to our program. I don’t have a ready-made answer to your question, but I do hope some of our applicants will. Let’s see!

As an avid traveler, how are you coping personally during this period of global lockdown? What do you miss the most?

For more than a month, I’ve been in self-isolation alone in my Moscow apartment. My family has moved to the dacha [Russian country house] outside Moscow, and I visit them on weekends (this is allowed in Russia with a permit). I don’t think I’ve spent so much time at home ever! My schedule has always been either mostly work or mostly travel. Of course I miss traveling, miss the more active lifestyle. But what can you do? We are all in this together for the greater good.

Finally, paint us a picture of your favorite place to visit in Russia as a tourist — and why you love it :)

Ah, that’s easy! The beautiful Kamchatka on the far-eastern end of Russia. The land of volcanoes, geysers, lakes, rivers, mountains, scenic beaches, wild bears. It’s my favorite holiday destination, with absolutely stunning flora and fauna and endless opportunities for exploration. I’ve been there many times on hiking tours for fishing and mountain climbing. I think that the place is a must-see for all wildlife and adventure-tourism devotees! 10 out of 10! Go and find out for yourself!

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