When the 2008 financial crisis hit Ukraine, the Zinchenko brothers, Andrij and Roman, both lost their jobs in media and communications. Trying to make the most of their unexpected free time and severance money, the brothers decided to help finish a house – originally built for evacuees from Chernobyl Displacement Area – that their parents had bought about 40 miles outside Kiev.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Stanford Video

Meet the winners of the 2017 Bright Award, Andrij and Roman Zinchenko. These brothers work to promote energy-efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability through education, media initiatives, mentorship and events, such as hackathons. The Zinchenkos founded one of the first green energy incubators in Ukraine, Greencubator.

That decision, and what it taught them about the energy markets in Ukraine, led the brothers into a new career supporting green energy innovation. Less than a decade later, the Zinchenkos have built a thriving sustainable energy education and innovation community, founding one of the first green energy incubators in Ukraine, Greencubator. A network of sustainable energy enthusiasts and experts, Greencubator encourages technical, social and economic energy innovation through education, media initiatives, mentorship and events, including large-scale hackathons.

In recognition of their groundbreaking work, the Zinchenkos have been awarded the 2017 Stanford Bright Award. This $100,000 prize is given annually to recognize otherwise unheralded contributions to global sustainability.

Stanford Law School alumnus Ray Bright, who was a lifelong conservationist, established the Bright Award,” said Law School Dean M. Elizabeth Magill. “There are two goals of the Bright Award that were Ray’s ideas: one is to recognize unsung heroes of environmental conservation; the other is to increase the influence of their work by giving it international recognition.”

Learning by doing

Assessing what needed to be done to restore the former evacuee house, the Zinchenko family members decided to complete much of the work themselves. They heard a friend had recently installed his own energy and water systems and they could rely on the knowledge of their father, a history professor who has a degree in math and electrical engineering. The brothers were also emboldened by the legacy of their do-it-yourselfer grandfather Leonid and nature-loving grandmother Ganna.

After six months or so, the Zinchenkos and their father finished most of the plumbing and wiring on the structure themselves, including as many energy-smart solutions as they could devise.

Then, when it came time to finally hook the home up to the power grid, they were given the choice to either pay to install new transformers and power lines or to bribe the power company representatives. This outright corruption stood in stark contrast to the Zinchenkos’ successful independent work up to that point and gave Andrij and Roman a new ambition: the democratization of energy.

“I believe that energy democracy and open grids will unlock freedom, growth and innovation opportunities on a scale similar to what the internet did,” Roman said. “And I hope someday even the house we built will feed electricity into the grid.”

Innovators and inspirations

The Zinchenkos founded Greencubator in 2009. Since then it has brought together seasoned experts in sustainable energy, those starting to develop new energy solutions and people who are only just beginning to learn more about energy and sustainability.

Ukrainian startups Ecoisme and uMuni are examples of efforts helped along by Greencubator. Ecoisme, an app-enabled home energy monitor startup, won Greencubator’s 2013 TeslaCamp, an open-air, off-the-grid, solar-powered hackathon. A joint hackathon with Lviv Business School, called Smart EnergyHackathon, furthered the progress of uMuni, a service that automatically monitors and analyzes energy efficiency on the municipal level using data from meters. Soon after the hackathon, uMuni was tested in Lviv and saved the city over $1 million. Roman still acts as an adviser to both startups.

In 2015 Greencubator launched Hack4Energy, one of the largest parallel hackathons in Eastern Europe, which connects representatives from several Ukrainian cities via video-link to develop new sustainable energy solutions. Greencubator is also the origin of the energy group Reanimation of Package Reforms, which Andrij co-founded and managed. This coalition of over 70 nongovernmental organizations and independent experts from all across Ukraine is working to develop, promote and advocate for energy reform solutions.

In 2016 Greencubator also entered new sectors, releasing a documentary, “There Is Life Here,” dedicated to Chernobyl-area revival, and the video series “Energy Heroes,” portraying Ukraine’s green innovators. It also translated StartupAmsterdam’s book Startup City to help Ukrainian cities grow startup ecosystems.

“There are the stories of people finding their calling in energy and sustainability with some impact from our awareness work,” said Roman, when asked about the success of Greencubator. “Learning that some of our talks defined personal paths of some amazing people I know, thanks to Greencubator, was really important for me during some tough days in my life.”

In addition to his Greencubator roles, Roman is a visiting lecturer at Kiev School of Economics and Lviv Business School, and has hosted and curated TEDxKiev for several years. With support from Greencubator, Andrij also works on fundraising for EnergyTorrent, which is developing open-source components to allow people to produce their own renewable energy technology, and for SolarSprouts, a community-owned solar power plant which raises funds for energy and solar sustainability startups.

“The Zinchenko brothers have galvanized energetic and entrepreneurial people from many different sectors, and their work has helped create both well-known start-ups and a broad network of like-minded people.  They have also had an influence on government policy,” Magill said. “The work they have done is impressive, and I have every hope that it will be a lasting achievement.”

A surprising win

Roman learned of the Bright Award win while winding down from the TNW Conference, a large technology festival in Europe, and first thought it was an email scam. He forwarded the email to Andrij, just in case, and unplugged for the night.

“It the morning I realized it was real,” recalled Roman. “And then a strange thing happened: I went numb. I froze emotionally. This is Stanford, the coolest place on Earth – and somehow I wasn’t jumping with joy yet. I’m more than surprised with such a response.”

Part of the award money will be used to establish a memorial stipend dedicated to Anatoliy Kopets, the late founder of Association Energy Efficient Cities of Ukraine, a sustainability promoter and friend of the Zinchenkos who died two years ago. Kopets was particularly interested in fostering sustainable energy awareness in younger generations. Following his example, the stipend will support energy and sustainability talent found within universities. The Zinchenkos haven’t planned out precisely what they’ll do with the rest of the money but it will likely go to support solar projects, resilient local energy cooperatives and new energy innovations.

Reflecting on the importance of their work and what they plan to do next, Andrij said, “Linus Torvalds is my personal hero and, just as Linux opened up countless opportunities for millions of people and companies – big and small – to use free software, co-create and make things that were not possible before, we are providing people with energy democracy, which unlocks the creativity and potential to make energy truly human-centered and empowering rather than over-regulated and monopolized as it is in most cases now.”

The 2017 Bright Award for Environmental Sustainability will be presented to Andrij and Roman Zinchenko on Nov. 9 at Stanford’s Paul Brest Hall. As part of the presentation, the Zinchenkos will give a public lecture and there will be a panel discussion on “Democratizing Energy: Building Sustainability From the Ground Up,” followed by a reception. This event is open to the public but RSVPs are required. For more information and to RSVP, please visit the event website.

Media Contacts

Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-7707, tkubota@stanford.edu