Home Biological science ‘Drop everything’: Huntsville company helps employees flee war-torn Ukraine

‘Drop everything’: Huntsville company helps employees flee war-torn Ukraine

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Refugees want to work.

It’s the startling reality against a grim backdrop for Glenn Bilawsky, CEO of Huntsville-based Discovery Life Sciences, which also has a location in war-torn Ukraine. His company has been rushing to evacuate employees for the past three weeks.

There are other stories, too, like the top Ukrainian site official ending a Zoom call with Bilawsky with a simple “I gotta go” as Russian rockets exploded in nearby buildings.

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So far, Discovery has relocated 20 of its 64 employees to Ukraine. The others wanted to stay in the country or had no choice but to join the army. Bilawsky said no company employees or their family members were injured or killed.

And company employees in Huntsville and elsewhere around the world have contributed a portion of their salary as well as accrued vacation time by reaching out to fellow Ukrainians.

But these colleagues want to work.

“I mean, they’re passionate about it,” Bilawsky said. “They just want — after everything they’ve been through to cross the border and everything — and they said, you know, where can we work?

“And then we talked about the lab in Germany, and they got on a bus with their kids and everything and went to a country that they didn’t even speak the language of, but they wanted to go there and they wanted to work again. They wanted to get back to doing what they’re doing to improve health care and improve science.

That’s what they do at Discovery Life Sciences. Its home offices in Huntsville are located on the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology campus in Cummings Research Park and Discovery describes itself as the world’s largest biological sample inventory and supply network. This network, among other things, helps in the search for a cure for cancer.

The Discovery Life Sciences site in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Discovery of life sciences)

Beyond its five national sites, Discovery also has sites in Germany and Bulgaria as well as in the Ukrainian capital of kyiv.

Bilawsky said the evacuation of employees began when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. And the CEO immediately reached out to Christiaan Neeleman, the company’s president of European operations.

Bilawsky recounted, “I said, ‘Christiaan, drop everything about business. And I want you to put together a team of all the resources you need in the business. And let’s put a plan in place and understand the situation on the ground in Ukraine and what we can do.

This led to Tetyana Yurkovska, medical director general of the Ukrainian site.

“Literally the day of the attack, she called me on a Zoom call from her phone,” Bilawsky said. “We were face to face. They had packed their car. They had filled cans of petrol for extra fuel as they were unsure if they would have (enough) fuel to get to the border and cross the border or not and with all the personal belongings they possibly could to assemble.

“And while we were on the phone, there’s a rocket attack that landed and a helicopter shot down there about two miles from her house. And the abject fear on her face as we’re on a Zoom call face to face, the reality of what was going on. It’s one thing to see him on the news and all that, but she was telling me that she was ready to go and where they were going. And she would keep in touch. And everything all of a sudden there was a huge explosion. And just the shock on her face and the tears welling up in her eyes. And she said, ‘Glenn, I have to go. I have to go fast, in all security. It just brought the reality of the hopelessness of the situation and the danger, it couldn’t be more apparent. The only way it could be more apparent is if I stood next to her.

You can help.

Discovery is setting up a 501(c)(3) as a way to accept donations to go directly to their Ukrainian employees. The non-profit organization, which is expected to be active every day, will be known as Discovery Cares (discoverycares.com). The email address is DiscoveryCares@dls.com. The website will go live as soon as the nonprofit launches, Bilawsky said.

Yurkovska and her family managed to get to safety and took refuge in Poland. Once there, Bilawsky said Yurkovska began making arrangements for other employees to join her in Krakow, Poland. In addition to the 20 employees, 24 family members of those employees also fled Ukraine, Bilawsky said.

“As soon as she arrived, she started renting apartments and looking around the city for furnished apartments,” Bilawsky said. “We just said to Tetyana rent as many as you need so people as soon as they get there they have a place they can go and shelter and have a place to live and have a kitchen and start feeding themselves and all the things they need. He’s an amazing, amazing person.

In addition to accepting donations through its nonprofit organization, Discovery matches $3 with every $1 employee donation. Corporate matching will not be in effect for outside donations. The company also offers free air tickets to Ukrainian employees and their families to anywhere in the world.

Bilawsky praised the support the company has received both from its employees and from outside the company to ease the uproar of evacuations – from the European law firms the company works with to its accounting agencies.

“All we had to do was raise the flag and say we have people who need help,” Bilawsky said. “And I find it incredible how many people have come forward, both inside and outside the company, and offered to help. So I said I couldn’t take credit for how well it went or frankly how fast it happened because there are people on the ground in the world and especially our staff in Europe, they just went above and beyond.