Featured Article

Co-founders of Ukrainian startup Delfast discuss navigating through a crisis

‘Every morning starts with a check-in on Slack with all the colleagues’


Daniel Tonkopi and Serhiy Denysenko, co-founders Delfast
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

The COVID-19 pandemic taught the world how to work from home, but Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught the employees at Delfast, a Ukrainian e-bike startup, how to work from bomb shelters, while on the move and under threat of violence. 

The usual priorities of a startup – securing venture funding, researching and developing new products, finding product-market fit – haven’t exactly been put on hold, but they are now much lower on Delfast’s to-do list. Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in late February, Delfast’s top priority has been to see its Ukrainian team of 30 safely evacuated from the most dangerous parts of the country. 

When not focusing on sales, marketing, R&D and customer support, Delfast’s smaller team of seven employees based in Los Angeles has been pleading with U.S. politicians and the European Commission to supply Ukraine with anti-aircraft missiles and fighter jets that could help Ukraine gain back some control over its air space, and, hopefully, put a stop to this war. 

Delfast’s co-founders, Daniel Tonkopi and Serhiy Denysenko, say they have always believed in safeguarding the future. When they founded Delfast in 2014, originally as a delivery company, Tonkopi and Denysenko knew that providing couriers with green transportation options would be critical to the company’s operations. 

The founders soon realized that a bike with the power, range and battery life their couriers needed didn’t exist, and so they set out to build one. In 2017, backed by a Kickstarter campaign that saw the company raise $165,000, the startup began manufacturing a bike to fit its needs – one that promptly won the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest distance traveled on an electric motorbike on a single charge.

More recently, the Delfast Top 3.0 e-motorbike won Forbes’ fastest e-bike of the year in 2022 after the company announced some serious upgrades to the vehicle during CES

We spoke with Delfast’s co-founders to discuss what it’s like running a startup during a war, how the startup is considering breaking into new business verticals, and the importance of always having a Plan B. 

The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity. 

Note: Serhiy Denysenko’s answers were translated from Ukrainian by a member of Delfast’s team for TechCrunch. 

TC: Serhiy, you’re on the ground in Kyiv. What’s your day-to-day like?

Denysenko: Every morning starts with a check-in on Slack with all the colleagues. It’s important to keep in touch and know that everyone is fine, or as fine as is possible right now. 

Besides my work as a COO, I’ve been helping with volunteering, getting supplies and medicine to people, and this is something that pretty much every Ukrainian is now doing. I had my family relocated to Hungary, so I feel more or less safe, and I’m just trying to work as much as possible and do my best in every possible area, whether that’s supporting the company or supporting Ukraine in general. 

How are you managing your team through this crisis? What’s changed?

Denysenko: We got used to working remotely during Coronavirus times, so we have our task tracker, where everyone can see his or her task. Every Monday, we have an online Zoom meeting. Previously we only had these meetings at the executive level, but now during the war, we are gathering all together, just to see each other’s faces and ask how they’re doing, how’s everyone feeling. Just to talk with everybody. 


Has the war affected your manufacturing or delivery capabilities?

Tonkopi: I hate to say it, but we were prepared for this. We develop our bikes in Ukraine, where our R&D and engineers are, and we do prototyping in Kyiv, but we produce the bikes in China and then do final assembly in Los Angeles. 

So our logistics was not affected, aside from the issues with logistics that everyone in the world is having. But we have our stock here in California and we supply bikes to clients. Actually, in the last year, we decreased our delivery time from four months to just two weeks. 

What do you think has been the biggest challenge so far in terms of keeping things on track given the hellscape right now?

Denysenko: Our current challenge is to relocate people from dangerous places. For example, it’s almost impossible to get someone out of Kherson, because if they go by car, they’ll be under attack by Russian troops. They just shoot the cars on the road, or bomb the city and bridges. So this is the main challenge. Every team member has families and cats and dogs. Right now, we have about 20 people that we need to move out from dangerous cities to the west of Ukraine. We’re looking for transportation, but there’s no safe way to go. 

Tonkopi: Yes, the most important thing now is our people. Like one of our marketing managers is in Kharkiv, which has been bombed and almost demolished by Russian troops. Another one of our staff is in Kherson, which is fully occupied by Russians. She created a bomb shelter in her bathroom, putting pillows there and removing the mirrors so they wouldn’t be broken if bombs explode nearby. 

We are doing our best to evacuate people to the safer parts of Ukraine. There are no safe places in Ukraine right now, but there are some that are relatively safe. 

We all work now in two shifts. The first shift is our usual work and the second shift is our voluntary work. In Kyiv, half of our engineers are at war now. They are in the Territorial Defense Forces, which is like an official civilian army. 

Here in Los Angeles, we do our best, we go to rallies, we write petitions to the U.S. Congress, and I personally created a Telegram group that helps to address senators and congress people to help Ukraine.

All other challenges that we have, to raise venture rounds, to produce vehicles, they are all way below this challenge. The first task is to win the war. And then we’ll go to the next task.

Have you lost any staff during this crisis because people just can’t emotionally handle working while there’s a war going on?

Tonkopi: It’s hard to work. Especially during the first week, everyone couldn’t believe what was going on. It was really hard psychologically. People were working from bomb shelters, like Serhiy spent maybe a week in the bomb shelter with his family. We have bomb shelters in our office center. Our chief engineer was in Kharkiv, so he had to flee. 

Now, we have found a mental health specialist who is ready to help each of us. But after about one or two weeks of this nightmare, people came back to work. We cannot just be afraid all the time. It’s terrible; it’s a horrible situation, but our team has come back and put a lot of their energy into work. And you know what? During the war we developed a new model of the bike. It usually takes a year or more to create a new prototype, but we are going to do it in one month!

That’s incredible. Tell me about the new bike. 

Tonkopi: We have our hardcore user bike, with a range of 200 miles and it can go up to 50 miles an hour. It’s good for all terrains, but it’s heavy; it’s big. It’s like 80 kilograms [176 pounds]. People here in the U.S. want lighter bikes. They want more affordable bikes, and they don’t need 200 miles of range or such high speeds. So we analyzed their needs and created a new model that we hope will meet their expectations. And we are going to launch it within maybe two months, by the first of June as a Kickstarter. 

We have already developed the design, and now we’re in the process of creating the prototype, which we will present by the end of May. Because of the war, we have a lot of energy and usually this takes much longer, but now we all feel as though we must act. Our engineers were afraid during the first week, but then they came back to work with triple the energy.

More Transportation Founders

Tortoise co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko: ‘You can’t do too many things at the same time’

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun on the importance of differentiating your startup

Exploring the many faces of sidewalk delivery robots with Cartken’s Anjali Jindal Naik

Plentywaka founder Onyeka Akumah on African startups and global expansion

Battery chemistry company Sila’s founder Gene Berdichevsky on the science of scaling up

Rad Power Bikes founder Mike Radenbaugh on fueling the e-bike revolution

Via’s Tiffany Chu on the importance of govtech for planning mobility ecosystems

Einride founder Robert Falck on his moral obligation to electrify autonomous trucking

Revel’s Frank Reig shares how he built his business and what he’s planning

Arrival’s Denis Sverdlov on the new era of car manufacturing

Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson on finding the middle path to robotic delivery

Veo CEO Candice Xie has a plan for building a sustainable scooter company, and it’s working

Outdoorsy co-founders detail how they expanded the sharing economy to RVs

Kodiak Robotics’ founder says tight focus on autonomous trucks is working

Zūm CEO Ritu Narayan explains why equity and accessibility works for mobility services

I noticed that Delfast is donating money to Ukraine. Can you afford to be doing that?

Tonkopi: Yes, we donate 5% of our revenue to Ukrainian humanitarian organizations to help buy helmets, life vests, medicine, etc. I personally donate to the Ukrainian army. Our company policy is not to support military forces, though. 

It’s 5%, because we do what we can. During our future Kickstarter campaign, we will definitely donate part of the revenue to the people of Ukraine.

You’ve raised about $4.2 million in multiple seed rounds. Do you plan to raise more venture funding any time soon? 

Tonkopi: We announced a Series A venture round three months ago, and we’re hoping to raise $20 million. We had just started to sign agreements and collected hard commitments for $2 million when the war began. So there’s been a pause, but I’m starting that up again, and negotiating with investors to find the remaining $18 million. 

What types of investors are you looking for in this round?

Tonkopi: We’re looking for two types of investors. The first is traditional venture firms with a focus or portfolio in hardware, clean tech or green energy.

The second type of investor would be an automobile or electric vehicle company, like General Motors, Ford, or BMW. We believe we can add value to them and combine our efforts. We have expertise in electric vehicles. We have a lot of patents and patentable technologies in our bikes. We are a high-tech engineering company – we just happen to produce bikes. But we are ready to move beyond just e-bikes.  

One of our main goals is to move production to the U.S., so this goal will be part of the round. We hope to open an assembly factory here in either California or Texas, and produce e-bikes here, and also create jobs in the U.S. 

What does moving beyond e-bikes look like?

Tonkopi: One important part of our bike is the onboard PC, the main computer that accumulates all the data like GPS tracking, trip history, temperatures, the battery management system, and battery usage. This computer could be used in other vehicles for fleet management, for improving battery consumption, etc. This is one example. 

Another example is requests we get from other companies, like one that’s producing delivery robots. They told me they have everything needed for the upper part of the robot, like delivery, navigation, and giving orders to a customer, but they need help with the lower part of the robot – the long range, the battery management system, and the ability to have the vehicle run farther. 

Obviously, the world has been increasingly unpredictable. Startups are at risk of facing multiple crises, from a global pandemic to natural disasters to, as you’re experiencing yourselves, an all-out war. Do you have any advice for founders navigating their startup during a crisis?

Tonkopi: The most important thing for an entrepreneur, and in general for any leader, is to protect the team and be completely honest with them during a tough time.

When the COVID lockdown began in March 2020, sales of Delfast e-bikes dropped to near zero. I arranged a team meeting on Zoom, and told my colleagues that we had enough money to last a month. We began to brainstorm about what we could do. One team member suggested launching an installment plan for clients, another proposed to organize a sale. And another person was thinking about launching new bike models on the market. We planned to release them throughout the year, but the question was to do it now or maybe never. All the proposals we implemented in March 2020. 

In April, sales increased four times compared to before the crisis. In February, we had sold 10 bikes, and in April, we sold 40. So it gave us a good boost for all subsequent months. And most importantly, we started to believe in ourselves a lot. Later, we realized that the consolidation of the team at the right moment helped us survive as a business during the coronavirus year. 

Currently, we’re helping our employees with relocation, evacuation and migration issues. We provide them with financial and psychological support. All employees have kept their jobs, and there is no talk of any dismissal or reduction in salaries. Despite the financial difficulties of the company, we’re using reserve funds, and are looking for every opportunity to save and protect our people.

During a storm, the team must understand if it is ready to follow its captain. Can they trust him with their lives? Crises come and go, but no crisis or war can be won alone. Therefore, the most vital thing that will help you win is the team.

Denysenko: A founder always has to be ready to implement Plan B. That’s why it’s crucial to have it very detailed and thought out for the worst scenario. You need to realize that crises – war, climate catastrophes, or anything else – can really happen. Even if everything is fine, having an efficient Plan B costs nothing. 

These are a few points I would recommend paying attention to first and foremost while working on your Plan B:

  • Relocating the team. Employees are and always will be the most valuable part of any company.
  • Sufficient network of partners, so that in the worst case, you can rely on alternative supplies of necessary materials, parts, or anything else you need to continue production (or business in general).
  • A financial fund to cover the needs of the company when you don’t have your usual income.
  • It’s always a good idea to be prepared to develop an alternative product quickly. It may help businesses to survive the situation. Moreover, this is usually a workable way to bring the team together. 

As we see now, a tough time can be a strong push for consolidation and creativity.

Where do you expect or hope to see Delfast a year from now?

Tonkopi: We will win the war, and we will celebrate the victory day. We will grow our team to even more than it is today, both in the U.S. and Ukraine. By that time, we will have raised $20 million, established our assembly plant, and have production in the U.S. We will present two new models to the market. I mentioned just one, but we have another one in the works, as well. 

Denysenko: I want to see Delfast bikes to be the Tesla of e-bikes, the one everyone follows.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo