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Russian Silicon Valley Innovators Seek UK Collaboration

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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A delegation from the Skolkovo Foundation, the Russian equivalent of Silicon Valley, visited the UK seeking co-operation and investment, Max Smolaks reports

Executive directors of all five specialist clusters of the Skolkovo Foundation visited London this week to talk about what is possibly one of the most ambitious initiatives in modern Russia. The aim of the visit was to attract partners and investors to the scheme, and to raise awareness of the opportunities the initiative can offer UK researchers and companies.

The Skolkovo innovation centre has the full support of the Russian government, which plans to spend $3 billion (£1.9bn) in the three year period from 2010 to 2013. In addition to state sponsorship and state-of-the-art infrastructure, approved foreign companies will enjoy unique conditions, such as tax exemptions and a special legal status.

Looking for Partners

“International co-operation is critical for Skolkovo. That’s why we are here today,” said Dr Victor Vekselberg, president of Skolkovo Foundation, addressing a room full of businessmen at The Institute of Directors. Vekselberg is also keen to raise the profile of the innovation centre. Although it has achieved more than 50 percent brand awareness across Russia since the project was announced in 2009, it is relatively unknown abroad. Yesterday’s conference was intended to change this, at least in the UK.

Vekselberg’s colleague Alexandr Lupachev, head of Investment Service, said that the scale of the project signals the changing attitudes to the country’s chaotic past. Russia is ready to move on, and it has chosen science and technology to deliver this transition.

What is Skolkovo?

The project was launched by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in November, 2009. It was designed to stop the brightest minds from leaving to work abroad, to modernise the economy of the country, and decrease its dependence on oil and gas. Three years on, the Skolkovo Foundation has given away $150 million (£95.5m) in grants, recruited three Nobel Prize laureates, and signed-up over 310 companies to work at the “Russian Silicon Valley”.

At the heart of Skolkovo are the five clusters: IT, biomedical, energy, nuclear and space. Every cluster will have entrepreneurs and scientists from the same field working side-by-side, creating a unique ecosystem. The clusters are supported by a “classic” technopark, which provides a full range of business services: incubation, intellectual property protection, investor relations, and access to venture funds.

Among other things, the innovation centre will become home to the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (SkyTech), which will offer postgraduate courses in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). SkyTech plans to have over 1200 students by the end of 2014.

Finally, Skolkovo itself is designed as a city of the future. It is using the latest advances in ecological efficiency and urban design, to ensure optimal work and leisure conditions for its 26,000 residents. “We want to build a place where people want to come and stay,” said Vekselberg. The residential areas of Skolkovo will be complete in three years.

Venture capital

At the moment, Skolkovo Foundation is co-operating with 28 venture funds. Out of these, eight are foreign but none of them are from the UK. “Attracting British partners is a strategic task for Skolkovo because they have a lot of experience in similar projects, and are in close proximity,” wrote  Lupachev ahead of the London conference.

From left to right: President of the Skolkovo foundation Viktor Vekselberg, Mr Paul Docx, CEO of Imperial Consultants and Coordinator of the UNIHEAT Industry Engagement Programme, Dr. Martin Knight Imperial College London - Support Services Chief Operating Officer and BP’s head of Russia David Peattie

“If we would try to attract some of the best venture funds in this business, those from the Silicon Valley in US, we would have problems caused by distance. In winter, the time difference is 12 hours. This makes communication and co-ordination with partners difficult. Our colleagues from London are closer, and I believe they will be very interested in co-operation on key projects.”

One such project was announced on Wednesday. The Skolkovo Foundation has given official approval for the establishment of the Centre of Applied Research on Energy Efficient Heat Exchange and Catalysis (UNIHEAT). This will bring together Imperial College of London, the Boreskov Institute of Catalysis, and British Petroleum (BP). Researchers at the Centre will focus on increasing energy efficiency and reducing heat loss in oil refining. The project aims to greatly improve refining operations while at the same time reducing CO2 emissions.

The future of the country

In his speech, Vekselberg stressed several times that Skolkovo is not just about the financial gains. “Money, of course, is important but, for our project, it is more important to change the minds of people. If you ask the audience in this room, they will tell you that today, money is not critical. Ideas are critical, and people who are ready to process these ideas and bring them to the market to create the environment that supports innovation and generates new capabilities.

“We will never be able to replicate the Silicon Valley success. It is impossible. We would need 50 years to achieve that. We are not trying to build any industrial facilities in Skolkovo – there will be no factories. Instead, we will focus on education, research and development.”

Vekselberg sees Skolkovo as essential to the future of the country. “It is not simply about investment and building business, but creating a new generation of Russian people.”

The Foundation has set up a Website for organisations which wish to apply for a grant or join the Skolkovo innovation centre. The only way to apply is online.