Oleg Vornik fled Russia as a teen when his homeland took an authoritarian turn. Now he is helping Ukraine defend itself against Putin’s army.
For a guy on Vladimir Putin’s naughty list, Oleg Vornik remains sanguine about his personal safety.
Russian-born Vornik found himself targeted by Moscow for sanctions last year because of his role as chief executive of DroneShield, an Australian-based supplier of counter-drone technology to Ukraine’s military.
DroneShield chief executive Oleg Vornik says he isn’t worried after being sanctioned by Russia.  Rohan Thomson
“I think if I lived in a place like London, which is more famous for umbrella-spiked killings, you’d probably be a little more alarmed,” Vornik says, his accent retains traces of eastern Europe, as we pick at the sushi in the safe confines of Canberra Japanese restaurant RAKU.
“I think in Australia we’re pretty safe. At least so far. I’m a small fish. Sometimes people try to make an example out of you. So being a small fish doesn’t necessarily save you but you got to live your life.”
Vornik, 41, lives in Sydney but is becoming a more frequent visitor to Canberra as his defence technology company gathers steam, but he doesn’t have a regular haunt when it comes to dining in the capital.
RAKU has been flavour of the month for several years in Canberra but Vornik hasn’t eaten here before. He has picked it, though, because he is a fan of Japanese food; extolling it as “generally light and relatively healthy”.
Vornik, looking more like an IT help desker than a CEO, has had a chance to peruse the menu before I arrive. Our waitress suggests three maki rolls per person, so we order six to share.
Keeping with his health focus, Vornik orders a green tea, while I opt for a caffeine fix with a Coke.
Being sanctioned does have real-world consequences. Vornik is careful about airlines he flies overseas with to avoid encroaching on Russian airspace. And while he is unsure whether he is still technically a Russian citizen, it is too dangerous to check.
“To definitively reject your citizenship, you need to travel back to the country. You need to actually get the Russian passport first to go there. So for me, it will be out of question, because I’ll be put in prison the moment I step my foot in it,” he says.
Nevertheless, DroneShield shareholders have plenty to be happy about at the moment. Last month, the company’s share price jumped 19 per cent in a day after it announced a $33 million deal with the US Defence Department. Since October, the share price has doubled and it traded as high as 32¢ this week. Revenue last year was $17 million, and the company now employs 85 people.
DroneShield produces technology to stop unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – from communicating with their controllers. The products use sensors to detect drones and radio frequencies to stop them flying or transmitting images.
Systems can be mounted on buildings and vehicles but the company’s most popular product is the DroneGun, which can “fire” signals directly at drones. Customers include militaries, police, prisons, airports and stadiums.
While Vornik is riding the wave of increased military spending by governments amid rising geopolitical tensions, he maintains there is an ethical element to DroneShield’s wares.
Vornik with one of DroneShield’s handheld products. Oscar Colman
“There are companies that make guns and explosives and things that kill people, right?” he says. “Even if you run the message, that you’re protecting the world, you’re getting rid of bad guys, at the end of the day a lot of companies in defence are killing people.
“Our stuff is completely harmless to people, or even to drones, for that matter, which is actually interesting in the ESG context, where we regularly have these conversations with people where we say, ‘We’re lifesavers, not life-takers, and we make world a safer place’.
“I like the idea of sleeping well at night, knowing that we don’t hurt anybody. It’s as much ideological as it is practical. The reality in Australia is that if you want to employ the best engineers, if your mission involves killing people, there’ll be a lot of people who will not touch you with a barge pole.
“If I went tomorrow into manufacturing machine guns or turrets, half of my engineering team will leave. Because it’s just not how they see themselves.”
The fresh maki rolls – each cut into six pieces for sharing – arrive with little delay. While all are tasty, the hero is the dragon roll, with a prawn tempura and avocado filling and thin slices of seared Wagyu tenderloin wrapped around the outside.
I feel guilty part-way through the meal though: Vornik is doing more talking than eating, as each question prompts a long, considered response.
Vornik’s pathway to DroneShield has had a few twists. He was born in Saratov, a city of almost 1 million people on the Volga River. He remembers the final years of Soviet rule, including the obligatory stint as a youth member of the Communist Party, the “amazing amount” of propaganda, statues of Lenin and parades.
“And then, when [president Boris] Yeltsin came to power, there was this big structural shift, where suddenly all these gangs started to emerge, where it really felt like a lot of lawlessness and human life had basically no value,” Vornik says.
“So in some ways, while I think Putin is an absolute dictator, a killer, and he should not be where he is, I think a lot of people at the time voted for him as they tried to curb the lawlessness, so they essentially traded lots of little gangsters for one big gangster.”
As Putin began his rise in Moscow, Vornik’s mother, Elena (his parents divorced when he was young and his father, a physicist working in the oil industry, now lives in Germany), decided in 1997 to get out of Russia because of the authoritarian turn it was taking.
While it meant giving up a comfortable middle-class existence as a doctor, Elena wanted a better life for her son, who was then 15.
After considering several English-speaking countries, the easiest countries to migrate to boiled down to Canada and New Zealand, the latter winning out as Vornik’s uncle was already living there.
It was a tough adjustment. Vornik and his mother knew hardly any English and they lived in public housing in Christchurch. Elena’s medical degree was not recognised by authorities so rather than go back to medical school, she requalified as a natural medicine practitioner.
Vornik took a job at the local KFC where his abiding memory was mixing water and powder to make potato and gravy (he hasn’t been back to a KFC since he left a year later).
Maths proved to be his salvation – ironically given a head start by the strict Russian education system.
“It’s a nightmare, in a sense they encourage you, but then at the same time, they intimidate you if you’re not performing well. The teacher would humiliate you in front the class as it’s essentially a means for them to see how you respond,” Vornik recalls.
“They take the approach, ‘Well, we’re not going to raise just nerds’. So during the weekends, you have your PE classes where you run waist high in the snow to basically just try to harden you up.
“So one advantage I had when I moved to New Zealand was, as far as sciences were concerned, I was already several years in front of the Western system.”
Vornik became a member of the Maths Olympiad team in high school and while he harboured ambitions to become an engineer, went on to study maths at Canterbury University.
He interned at Citibank and moved to Australia in 2005 while working for ABN AMRO. In 2015, while working at Royal Bank of Canada, he was approached by a hedge fund and asked to join a US start-up called DroneShield as chief financial officer and take it public on the Australian stock exchange.
“I really hated being a banker,” Vornik says. “You’re really an overpaid secretary. You’re drafting pitch books, you might be doing a model. But at the end of the day, you’re a side piece to your customer’s thinking.
“When you’re a banker, and you manage a team of junior bankers, they’re all like Mini-Mes, where you know exactly how they think and how much time to expect for a particular task; you can jump in and do the task if you have to.
“So moving to a tech business was challenging in many ways. Notionally I’m responsible for the software engineers in my team although I don’t know how to code! But these people fundamentally think differently to how you and I might think, and the same thing applies to hardware engineers, the same thing applies to salespeople.”
Vornik became DroneShield’s CEO a year later and put his stamp on the business, including firing the two co-founders.
“I think generally speaking, most founders are not competent as CEOs, because it’s an entirely different skill set, to give birth to an idea and then to scale that idea in a disciplined manner,” he says.
“One requires almost that kind of chaotic creativity, looking at all kinds of different things and creating a spark where nothing existed before while the second one is that discipline march from a spark of an idea to scaling the business up. And it’s very hard to combine both skill sets in one person. But I think a lot of founders have this view that, ‘Well if I started the business, then I can run it,’ but it’s not always true.”
“[The founders] made good money selling their shares in the company, they didn’t do poorly out of it but you need support from a controlling shareholder who can look at things objectively without that emotional prison that you have as a founder.”
Vornik may not have the chaotic creativity of a founder but he does work hard. He says the demands of the business leave no time for a life partner but he makes time to exercise on his Peloton bike. When he’s travelling he likes to kite surf when he can.
DroneShield’s products are getting some real-world testing on the front line after being given to Ukrainian soldiers. Both sides have embraced drones, for surveillance and carrying out attacks, including suicide drones laden with explosives that can destroy armoured vehicles.
Vornik admits constant improvement is needed to stay ahead of adversaries.
“It’s absolutely a cat-and-mouse game. We are seeing now consumer drones that you and I can buy in JB Hi-Fi come out with features, which I would squarely describe as military features, like resistance to somebody trying to interfere with it,” he says.
“If you buy a $2000 drone for your child for Christmas, why would it need such a feature? And I believe the answer is because the manufacturers know that some of the drones will be used in war theatres, and they build them to be compatible with that environment. It’s pretty fascinating.”
RAKU, 148 Bunda Street, Civic, Canberra
Dragon maki, $30
California maki, $25
Truffle hiramasa maki, $23
Truffle sãmon maki, $23
Spicy maguro maki, $23
Kumogani maki, $24
Sparkling water, $3
Small sencha tea, $4
2 Coca-Cola, $10
Total: $165
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