Volga | Finance, business | Technology & innovation
U.S. experts: with top-notch technologies, lack of business staff at Russian start-ups “relatively easy” to address
1 Jun '15
As we reported earlier, a major event took place on May 20-22 on the campus of Lobachevsky UNN, the largest university in the mid-Volga region of Nizhny Novgorod. KomTech-2015 has been designed to promote innovation entrepreneurship drive among university researchers and bring advanced local sciences closer to international markets; more activities are expected later in the year as part of the initiative.
Marchmont News and the press service of the Technology Commercialization Center (TCC)—a new UNN department established a year ago to help university technologies find their way to global markets, and the main organizer of KomTech—met some of the key international guests of the event to see what the experts thought of UNN achievements in tech innovation and the prospects local projects might have internationally.
When asked about UNN’s potential in international biomedical markets—an area Lobachevsky considers winning on its list of research strengths—Paul T. Harper, Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said that biomedical and neurosciences may turn out to be UNN’s key into the group of five Russian universities expected to join the top 100 globally by 2020 [he refers to the federal “5/100” program designed to incentivize leading Russian universities in their pursuit of increased international competitiveness and higher citation indexes—Editor’s note].
“I think that globally, this is going to be the most important area of innovation for entrepreneurship. I believe this university may have a huge impact moving forward precisely because of developing capacities in the right research area,” Dr. Harper said.
Vlad Likholetov, the head of International Partnerships and Initiatives in the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri, supported his colleague’s prognosis, emphasizing that “Lobachevsky UNN has great potential for science.” He pointed out, however, that excelling in fundamental sciences is one side to the innovation story; the other is finding people capable of managing innovation. The latter must develop in parallel with and support the former, he said. And the latter is still being put together at Russian universities.
“It’s obvious that there’s a certain gap; there’s a perceptible lack of people market-savvy enough to help scientists nurture their projects until those are ripe for commercial success,” Dr. Likholetov said, adding that things like that don’t happen overnight. He doubts that with more programs developed to train scientists in entrepreneurship skills—a strategy suggested by many in Russia—university professors and postgraduates will necessarily make good business people. The expert believes that most researchers don’t really wish to get distracted from the fascinating scientific problems they want to keep focused on.
“Such people need help, mentors, and teams. Let them do their science—but in contact with a manager, and that collaboration will show efficacy,” Dr. Likholetov underlined, saying that in spite of certain complexities he noticed at UNN, the process is developing and the UNN TCC team is exactly working to both educate scientists and help them meet up mentors.
Both U.S. experts pointed out that Russian start-ups share a common problem in their development, which, unless addressed promptly, may metastasize into a fundamental weakness. Start-up teams have trouble speaking the business language investors expect to hear at project pitches, and appear to underestimate the value of ties with venture capitalists.
Dr. Harper said that as a business person, he praised the strength of scientific teams at UNN, but “what they need to do is connect more with global capital; the implication will be huge, and I anticipate they will be successful.” One of the capacities they will have to build—other than just the deepening of their science—is the deepening of their relationships with investment capital, the expert reiterated.
He also highlighted problems Russian start-ups face presenting their solutions:
“Talking about those that aren’t successful, in a lot of times it’s not because capital is unavailable—they just haven’t told the story about their firm in a way that’s attractive to an investor. I think this is one of the challenges you’re still having here.”
According to Dr. Likholetov, it’s the obvious prevalence of technology push over market pull in a Russian start-up’s approach to seeking investment that poses a serious threat to local developers on their path to global recognition.
“What I saw during presentations at KomTech is that presenters shower audiences with pure research terms right out of the gate, and if the audiences have not come for a scientific discussion, people begin to lose focus. For business people, seeing a market is key. A presentation should start from revealing your competence in market pull, showing that you know what your market needs. But presenters often fail to describe their markets and explain who needs what they develop, why customers might want to need it, and what problem the innovation is expected to solve,” he said.
Dr. Likholetov drew attention to the importance of “listening attentively to what industry representatives have to say.” The industrial community “offers you information you’re very unlikely to find easily on the street,” he emphasized, as corporate people know their markets well and have lists of technology solutions they seek. It’s wiser to talk to them and have them in mind when developing a project, rather than develop something that just amuses the scientific curiosity of an author—hardly a winning strategy.
Both experts agreed that setting up an Industry Advisory Board—an informal alliance of business and industry representatives being actively built these days at UNN to get expert advice on how university innovators could focus on the real needs of industry—is a perfect mechanism TCC is developing to stay in touch with the real market.
With quite a lot of challenges still haunting Russia’s start-up community, Dr. Harper thinks those may be relatively easy to address:
“I think that with further business courses, visits from professors like myself, particularly business professors, not just other scientists, and the inclusion of more business men and women within the teams, you can correct that pretty quickly. It’s about articulating your value. The hard part is having a good technology. You’ve got good technology, so you have already taken care of the hard part. The business part I think is relatively easy to change.”
Dr. Likholetov believes events like KomTech provide a new window of opportunity for universities across the globe willing to collaborate. He now wants to persuade the management of the University of Missouri to join the International Proof-of-Concept Center Association (IPOCA)—a coalition initiated and created by MIT and its partner at Russia’s Skoltech Institute of Science and Technology in an effort to promote the idea that PoCs should be added to tech transfer programs across all universities. The UNN Technology Commercialization Center has set up one of Russia’s first proof-of-concept centers, and Lobachevsky UNN is one of the charter founding members of the Association.