Finance, business | Technology & innovation

Virgin Connect in Nizhny Novgorod: Branson’s team seeks new tech solutions from university talent

4 Dec '14
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Young university innovators in Nizhny Novgorod continue to learn the ropes in tech entrepreneurship as the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN) is hosting its first InnoFest festival of youth innovation. Let’s meet today a team of experts from Virgin Connect, a telecom asset owned by Sir Richard Branson and one of InnoFest’s Strategic Partners, which arrived at UNN in late November to conduct a series of terrific master-classes.

Fred Ledbetter, Virgin Connect’s CCO, is one of the most proficient in the firm. He’s had years of experience in the telecom sectors of countries as diverse as the United States, the Czech Republic, the UK; and he’s worked both in technology and marketing-focused positions there. He’s been in Russia since 1992; it was the time when, as he put it, “there wasn’t any commercial model, so, nobody really knew not just what we were doing but even how business worked, and what you did with customer service and sales, and stuff like that.” Fred came to InnoFest from their Moscow office to talk about the company and its charismatic founder, Richard Branson, and also train audiences in developing and nurturing creativity in a company through fostering a unique business culture that would stir resourcefulness in every employee.

From Natalia Burchilina, the company’s marketing director, the innovators learned how to identify a client and build one’s business on the knowledge of the customer. Knowing your client and understanding why he may want to buy your product, and how his needs can be met, are the cornerstones of a winning marketing strategy, she underscored.

Natalia Lapshina, the first deputy managing director of Virgin Connect’s Nizhny office, described to the audience the most valuable HR tools used to cultivate creativity and innovation.

The experts shared with the UNN Technology Commercialization Center (TCC) their views of Russian innovative start-ups and Virgin Connect’s prospects of operating in Russia:

What are the strengths and weaknesses of university-originating start-ups, to your mind?

Fred Ledbetter: “In Russia, the strong side definitely is technology. There are good technology start-ups. Their business model, how you get started, is a little bit harder, because you still normally have to get funding and have to create a good model. There’s been a lot of talk about why companies move offshore when they get to a certain size. Generally people say it’s because they no longer feel comfortable in this business environment when they do… I think that’s a definite concern if you lose great young entrepreneurs for that reason, that’s a shame.”

Natalia Burchilina: “Perhaps, an obvious lack of experience in business is what gives university start-up teams both weaknesses and strengths. On the one hand, that causes young innovators to be reinventing the wheel over and over and over again where a solution has already been found. On the other hand, however, that may give a start-up a fresh angle to look at a problem from, and offer yet another solution that would give the market a dramatic face-lift. Sir Richard Branson and the entire Virgin family offer a great example of how powerful a new vision may be. Whatever market our colleagues have entered worldwide, it’s a fresh perspective that helps bring about what we call smart disruption—a string of innovation that is a serious game-changer in a sector.”

How widespread, in your opinion, is a situation where one develops a good technology but has little or no notion of where and whom to sell it?

Natalia Burchilina: “For example, in a knowledge-intensive industry like telecom, with a zillion different technologies and IT solutions, such situations are very widespread, and they are nothing out of the ordinary. Both labor and expertise must be divided between those working on technology and those responsible for scanning markets and customers. The world’s most successful solutions and best business practices emerge in an environment where the tech gurus and market experts bring their savvy on one table and collaborate for a common cause. Especially today, in an age of the iPhone, when it’s not enough to come up with new technology—you’ve got to make it intuitive for any user.”

How would you rank the marketing component of a business project? Is its role significant?

Natalia Lapshina: “In her master-class, Natalia Burchilina gave her audience a vivid illustration of the significance of its role when she talked about Steve Jobs and his products which many use today. Had at the time of thinking up his iPads, iPhones, etc., he asked people what they thought of the idea, looking at this black glass thing many would have thought it twice before even considering buying a phone like that. But his gut feeling never failed him, and helped bring the products to market.”

Do you believe university-born innovation has the potential to work its way into large-scale companies, such as Virgin Connect? Can you see at Nizhny Novgorod universities what might eventually evolve as a game-changing tech solution?

Fred Ledbetter: “So far, not really. But everything starts somewhere. Look at Yandex. It began as a Russian Google clone, but then it just got better. It was a technology question of how you do a Russian search engine in the Russian language. And then it was also understanding the market and what people need. Yandex.Traffic in Russia—that’s a Bible for everyone here. That was a good extension of the technology… In Nizhny Novgorod? Not so much. We are getting involved with the university and the Technology Commercialization Center exactly for that reason. As a business we don’t do research and don’t do product development. We need to find start-ups for great application ideas and support those because that’s where our products come from.”

This past September, Virgin Connect opened an office in Nizhny Novgorod, thus confirming its Russia commitment in spite of the international political tensions. Do you have plans to enlist support of tech-savvy students from Lobachevsky UNN or other Russian universities to back your efforts in this country?

Natalia Lapshina: “Yes, when we lack the knowledge we possess, we go look for expertise outside. And that could come from specialists at the Nizhny university. Great we’ve got to know each other; it’s possible that you too will be solving some of our problems.”

Fred Ledbetter: “I would love that to happen, both in terms of recruiting them for work and making use of their ideas. Again, that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this; it’s just the first opportunity for us. Kendrick and I [Kendrick White, an American entrepreneur who’s lived and worked in Nizhny Novgorod for more than 20 years; now the UNN vice rector for innovation] have known each other for a long time. We made a connection about this, and this is a key to our strategy. We look forward to such developments.”

Your advice to young innovators?

Natalia Lapshina: “The guys here are terrific, and are moving in the right direction. I would wish them luck and great encounters with remarkable people; because older people can give a good counsel and help younger ones keep off grave slip-ups. It’s worth listening to them, keeping your eyes wide open and tuning in to any tip that life gives us.”

About InnoFest

InnoFest is a four-week event of regional significance put together at Lobachevsky UNN. It is aimed at assisting in the development of a youth innovation environment, encouraging transferable skills and activities, seeking out and supporting advanced ideas by the scientific youth, and fostering social and research integration within academia.

The festival is bringing together more than 1,000 young scientists from Nizhny regional universities and research institutes, as well as high-level government officials and business people from both the domestic and international entrepreneurial communities. InnoFest is offering its visitors a rich variety of programs, from business games to project competitions, to a photo exhibition.

Russian Venture Company (RVC), one of this country’s key development drivers and the national fund of funds for innovation, provides support as General Partner.

The Festival’s Strategic Partners include Intel, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Connect and Bosch, three of the world’s major multinationals. Promsvyazbank, a sizable Russian bank, offers support as Corporate Partner. Regional Partners include MTS, a leading Russian telecom operator and retailer, and Rugasco, a Russo-Norwegian gas equipment JV.
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