Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
As the current global economic realities are ratcheting up pressure on universities across the former Soviet Union to step up market-driven innovation, many institutions appear to still face trouble understanding how to go about it, and what to begin with. So did Lobachevsky UNN, a sizable university in the mid-Volga area currently ranking 14th in Russia according to Webometrics, when it decided last year to take on tech commercialization in earnest in its pursuit of higher international rankings. One of UNN’s Vice Rectors, Kendrick D. White, described in an exchange with Marchmont News how the Nizhny Novgorod university has been approaching this challenging task.
What are the long-term goals UNN’s been pursuing in its renewed innovation activity?
We’re going to work very hard to improve our global ranking. Historically, Soviet universities were not actively integrated into the global picture. They traditionally had very few foreign professors, very few foreign students, very few exchange programs, very few dissertations and scientific papers published in English globally.
While the former USSR has one of the greatest scientific backgrounds in the world, not everyone in the world knows about that. Our challenge is to become well-known because we feel we have cutting-edge technology and cutting-edge students that can create best solutions and develop those into global products.
Our strategy is to develop our relations with foreign universities, attract foreign professors, publish our discoveries in English, protect the IP of our scientists globally, and develop global companies which can expand throughout international markets. For that we need to reach out and develop partnerships with other universities and other companies.
What strategy has your team chosen in evaluating the commercial viability of projects originating from UNN labs?
The first step is to evaluate the market and try to understand what the root problem to be solved is. Once you understand the problem, then you have to compare your solution to any other competitive solution because any problem that exists today has some solution. Yours should be more competitive, less costly, and more efficient.
Once you can see that your solution is more competitive than anyone else’s in the market, and why, you can begin to assess the market value. You should look at how big the market is, how fast it’s growing, who your main competitors are (and what makes you better than those), and who your clients and buyers are.
Once you understand that, then you can begin to build a business model. Not a business plan. Everybody thinks about business plans; business plans are big thick documents with a lot of analysis. But before you do that, you need to create a business model: who your clients and partners are, and how your business is going to actually thrive and work as a living entity; how it’s going to make revenue and pay its costs; whether the business model will be the licensing approach or lead to production or to simply selling a technology patent to a corporate buyer. These are all critical issues to determine what your business model is.
There are many factors involved here. How strong is the team? Is there a strong scientific team with a weak business team? Maybe this project should be licensed. Is there a strong business team? Maybe you need to find those guys an angel investor and venture fund to back the team that may lead the project to creating the next Google or Apple Corporation.
Trying and helping students and professors understand how they can be successful at the university is one of the key objectives for the Technology Commercialization Center, the new UNN department we set up last year to kick-start the market-driven change. This is a critical thing. If students in Russia and the former Soviet Union see that professors here are the poorest people in society, what does that tell them? That tells them that they should emigrate. And if they see that our professors can become rich using the intelligence of their brains and creating new ideas and solutions that the whole world needs, and they can do it here, that will tell our students that they too can do that here.
We don’t have to have the brain drain. We have everything we need right here, in our territory. All we need to do is to develop the ecosystems and support infrastructure, and we need tax incentives to encourage investors to back our innovators.