Finance, business | Technology & innovation

Adrian Erlinger, American Councils: U.S. expands ties with Russian university start-ups

28 May '15
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Last week a Russian university gave the world a good example of how scientists and tech-focused entrepreneurs from different countries can interact for the common cause of making our planet a convenient and safe place to live—despite political tensions and artificially cultivated mistrust between nations. Lobachevsky UNN, the largest university in the mid-Volga region of Nizhny Novgorod, was the venue for a three-day innovation session called KomTech-2015, bringing together experts from many Russian regions and several U.S. states. (Please take a look here to see a detailed report of the event.) In fact, it was but a small episode in what is planned to be a year-long string of activities, only to be paused for summer. This and other KomTech events have been made possible through a dramatic refocus on market-driven scientific research that occurred at Lobachevsky UNN in 2013-2014 when a new team of market-savvy managers came to reinforce the already powerful group of fundamental scientists there.

To address certain disconnect between research labs and the real world with its customer needs, and to build a bridge into the international market for cutting-edge technology, Lobachevsky UNN, as well as many other Russian universities striving for global excellence, needed a tool, or vehicle, to help the best and brightest from among regional innovation developers to make a splash globally. With the U.S. market being by far the largest, America and Russia agreed a few years ago to build a corridor for Russian tech ideas to walk into the outside world. Thus what’s known now as the US-Russia Innovation Corridor came into being back in 2013. Since then two dozen UNN start-ups have used the Corridor; and for a year it’s also been instrumental for another Russian university, Perm Polytechnic in the West Urals, in its drive for global recognition.

The US-Russia Foundation (USRF) and American Councils for International Education have been pushing the bilateral initiative on the U.S. side, funding travel and training for Russians and liaising between various stakeholders in America which may get interested to further work with Russian teams. Last week KomTech in Nizhny Novgorod met a key person at American Councils who remembers the dawn of the ambitious program. Adrian Erlinger, the Program Manager for Innovation and Capacity Building at Councils, agreed to share with the UNN Technology Commercialization Center (TCC) his views of the future of the bilateral initiative, and what Russian start-ups need to do to make it internationally.

American Councils and personally you have been working hard to streamline the Innovation Corridor and ensure more active integration of Russian tech start-ups into international markets. Are the USRF and American Councils planning to continue the activity and, perhaps, expand the scope of the Corridor?

Yes. Last week in Moscow the US-Russia Foundation held the largest innovation conference to date. I believe there were 200-to-300 people at this conference, and there were participants from U.S. universities and Russian universities.

On the Russian side it was hosted by the Moscow Bauman State Technical University; there was participation from the Ural Federal University (UrFU) based in Yekaterinburg; of course, from Lobachevsky UNN; and from St. Petersburg’s ITMO
[University of IT, Mechanics and Optics—Editor’s note].

On the U.S. side, in addition to representatives from the University of Maryland [the host for Russian start-ups coming to the U.S. to get trained in commercialization strategies and meet up with partners and investors—Editor’s note], American Councils brought two brilliant experts from the University of Missouri and the University of Pittsburg. And they actively participated in that conference.

So, that’s one example of how we’re expanding relations within the US-Russia Innovation Corridor. Bauman is the new participant in the Corridor this year. We’re also working with the University of Missouri on a new partnership with St. Petersburg Polytechnic as an extension of the Innovation Corridor. And, of course, we’re working with Kendrick
[Kendrick White, an American entrepreneur and VC investor with 20+ years of experience in Russia, currently the Lobachevsky UNN Vice Rector for Innovation and head of the UNN TCC—Editor’s note] to bring in more tech start-ups from Russian universities, such as Perm Polytechnic, UrFU, and others.

Mr. Erlinger further said that American Councils are currently organizing a delegation for experts from the Bauman State Technical University’s newly established Center for Innovation Entrepreneurship Support to visit the United States and learn about best practices in engineering education and entrepreneurship for engineering innovation.

The Corridor has seen many Russian start-ups over the past two years. Have you noticed strong points in the project ideas they have presented to the U.S. communities?

Of course. Strengths they all have include a very high quality of technical and technological ability. There are many technologies to solve the problem of medical diagnostics, and to try to detect biorhythms. It’s your strength.

There are challenges, though. The biggest challenge is that the global market is very competitive. In working with the companies it’s very important to talk about the global competition for their products and work for them to understand the competition.

Mr. Erlinger emphasized that knowing the intricacies and pitfalls of a competitive market will help a developer improve his research and gain a stronger foothold in his relevant commercial market.

The UNN projects you saw earlier at KomTech pitches—are they positioned correctly from the market viewpoint, in your opinion?

Well, I know that here in Nizhny radio electronics is a key strength. So, it’s very interesting to see a combination between radio electronic and biomedical. I think it’s a very interesting aspect of the market. Again, it’s very important for Lobachevsky to understand the global competition for that.

Looking at the projects pitched at the event, I think FerroMagnet
[the developer of new ferromagnetic materials with given properties at UNN—Editor’s note] has a lot of potential; it’s nanotechnology, it’s a very new area that is only just now reaching the stage of commercialization. I can see it going into many different areas of the market. Maybe it could be industrial applications, maybe it could be heating systems—not just for cancer therapy the developers appear to be exclusively focused on. The potential for the project is very broad.

The same with the ROSE project
[Lasens, a UNN spin-off, is developing a biochip-based technology for cancer diagnostics in this project—Editor’s note]; their strength is their biochip. I think they have a lot of potential for other markets outside of just cancer detection.

As for the Tectum project
[developing a next gen hemostatic and wound-healing agent—Editor’s note], its challenge is to find a market here in Russia, because it seems that the large multinational companies have already done that technology. However, Tectum has good potential to really create its market niche here…

The American expert underscored that in his opinion, technologies “are very good.” What university start-ups need is stronger collaboration with business. More young students of business management need to join teams, working with scientists. He talked about a trend they can see in the United States these days, where MBA students and scientists collaborate. And, of course, start-ups also need to bring legal experts to really create a company, Mr. Erlinger said. “It’s a strong team that makes a viable business,” he pointed out.
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Locations: Nizhny Novgorod

Tags: KomTech 2015 (2) / Adrian Erlinger (0) /

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