Volga | Technology & innovation | Finance, business

Nizhny’s inaugural InnoFest closed: experts “expect the guys who pitched their projects to become millionaires one day”

23 Dec '14
The Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN), a large university in Russia’s mid-Volga area, completed earlier this month its four-week-long marathon of tech creativity, a festival of youth innovation called “InnoFest.”

The sizable event saw a wide range of interesting episodes, from exhibitions to full-blown business games, even to competitions of tech ideas assessed by prominent venture and innovation infrastructure gurus from across Russia and abroad. During the competitions, young innovators pitched to their juries more than 150 projects from various fields. Between November 18 and December 12, an estimated 900 people took part in the event, representing academic universities and R&D entities, the business community, and the regional government.

At InnoFest’s closing ceremony, however, few talked about the initiative drawing to an end. Most expressed their confidence that UNN and its partners had come to a new starting point, from which to clearly focus on a new regional innovation economy and a series of such events to be held on a regular basis. UNN Rector Evgeny Chuprunov said he was hoping that “…our university will develop a fashion trend for innovation, and participating in the InnoFest festival will be in vogue.”

One of the key features of the closing day of InnoFest was what the host referred to as “square table,” an event that brought together more than 60 participants representing government, academic and applied sciences, business circles, and the local youth. The guests discussed most important issues of developing university-based innovation ecosystems, IP protection, and the role in tech commercialization of new university elements, such as the Technology Commercialization Center (TCC) that has been up and running at Lobachevsky UNN for almost a year.

For creative young people that had spent almost a month competing with each other in resourcefulness and business savvy, of course, the most exciting moment on the closing day was an awarding ceremony for the winners of the innovation project competitions. There had been several of such contests at InnoFest.

On the very first day, on November 18, UNN hosted The Territory of Youth Innovation. On December 12, fifteen winning projects were awarded various prize moneys in five nominations, including biotechnology, IT, medicine of the future, new devices and hardware systems, and modern materials and technologies that help develop those. Areas of expertise included technologies to obtain bioactive substances, an IT system to assess one’s linguistic abilities by monitoring his or her eye movement, software for early breast cancer diagnostics, software to fight neurodegenerative diseases, a new bioextract based on sea-born collagen, software to help put out forest fires, and some other interesting research directions.

The best projects picked by a jury at the Territory of Youth Innovation became the finalists of a regional leg of the U.M.N.I.K. federal competition of innovation projects, an event that Russia’s Bortnik Fund, one of InnoFest’s Strategic Partners, holds across the regions each year. Projects in the same five nominations were evaluated from slightly different angles, and on the closing day the winners received a $3,650 Fund grant each to support their first year of R&D. Here, too, the participants presented a wide range of potentially disruptive technologies, from a bioluminescent system to new modules for disk lasers, to an improvement for microscopy, to a new system for noninvasive diagnostics of melanoma, to a sophisticated stress control device for people, to advanced technologies for agribusinesses, to another interesting robotized system for the extinguishing of forest fires, even to a software/hardware-controlled ‘smart wardrobe.’

More than a hundred student teams spent the four weeks working on their own project ideas at another electrifying competition called the Innograd 3.0: Generation business game. It was on December 12, on the closing day, that experts and guests could see the results of their efforts. The project that won the hearts of the game jury in the “Innovation and Intellect” nomination was the very “Smart Wardrobe” that was awarded an U.M.N.I.K. prize. The developers of an online retail system to sell bijoux and clothes walked away with their first prize in “Creative Activity & Ingenuity.” And in the “Entrepreneurial Activity” nomination, the experts liked a project called “MadCar. The Selling, Restoration, Tuning & Maintenance of Retro Autos.”

If Innograd is already well known to UNN and was first held three years ago, another business game called “KITE” came as a surprise to many. The participants got down to business almost immediately after InnoFest kicked off, generating ideas virtually from scratch and trying to turn their purely scientific discoveries into the concepts of marketable tech products. So, those ‘babies’ less than a month old were presented to a high-level panel of experts on December 12 in an elevator pitch format during an hour-long event UNN called “PitchNITE.”

The main awards from the jury and also from InnoFest’s partner companies, including Intel, MTS (one of Russia’s Big Three telecoms) and Rugasco (a Russo-Norwegian gas equipment maker), came to two projects that use the IT-enabled tracking of a person’s eyes—one, “EyeHelper,” to offer translation of unknown words in a foreign language text without the use of your fingers, and the other, “EyeLive,” to make work with a PC much easier for people with central nervous system disorders—and also to a project called “Invisible Mirror,” an innovative solution for those keen on comfort and style in their homes and offices, which utilizes the effect of the ‘disappearance’ of a mirror when voltage is added.

Expert: “I’m excited about the potential”

InnoFest saw among guests and experts a number of people with impressive market savvy and solid experience in business. A UNN Technology Commercialization Center (TCC) team approached some of these on InnoFest’s closing day to find out what they had liked or perhaps considered inept during the festival:

Aron Spencer, consultant and business coach, founder, InVenture: “I think that what we see here represents a very good start. I know this is only the beginning, and with the vision that Kendrick White [a U.S. citizen, UNN vice rector for innovation, venture capitalist and one of the inspirers of InnoFest] and Lobachevsky UNN and the Technology Commercialization Center have you guys will continue to work with proof of concept and further development of projects as there’s much to do. As far as the overall InnoFest thing, I think we need to get more companies involved which are outside universities from across the city and the region. Next time let’s do this, make it more inclusive. There’s a lot of stuff here, especially with tech transfer potential, which is going in a year or two to be in need of other businesses. We need to be thinking now how to involve them.

We saw tonight some of the standard problems that projects in Russia have: they don’t adequately consider international markets; they don’t adequately do competitive analysis, especially outside of Russia; they have some kind of misunderstanding of where appropriate funding sources are for different types of research and development. To be able to grow the project owners need to understand this sort of issues. I believe that as the UNN TCC develops this kind of training will become a lot more pervasive. I’m hoping to do the same thing in other places the local proof-of-concept center would collaborate with. I’m excited about the potential.”

Arseniy Dabbakh, director, corporate finance, Rye, Man & Gor Securities: “I liked to see many young people bring in ideas and present those to audiences without fear. Well, not all is perfect; and maybe not everything has been organized for them as seamlessly as is the case in Moscow or elsewhere; but what has been launched must continue. There will be an effect, sooner or later. I want this process in Nizhny Novgorod to keep on, as I’m expecting a multiplier effect as well, with enough technology-focused entrepreneurs emerging, and this will surely give impetus to the development of a regional economy and, naturally, the entire national economy.

I would recommend to young innovators that, first of all, they be bold to try and talk to the world. You may start a dialog with your future customers from the very first day of your project, the best way of receiving feedback. From the very first day—to escape mistakes, avoid losing money and, most importantly, valuable time.”

Evgeniya Shamis, advisor to the Vice Governor of the Samara Region, founder and CEO of Sherpa S Pro: “I believe choosing a month-long format for the event was the right thing to do. This was not a one-off conference but rather a series of events that brought people together and offered them work on their projects, training, and interaction with VC experts. It is so important for people to learn from the experience of their colleagues from around the world and thus be able to see possible directions of their own growth. I hope the format will not be scrapped as it gives focus.

Personally I thought it important to see what scientific areas young guys here will pay special attention to. And I got a solid confirmation that the region of Nizhny Novgorod already has strong competencies in industry. The “muscles” of these competencies should grow to meet global standards.

From what I saw during pitches one clear fact surfaces: whatever project you develop must have a much broader focus than just your own domestic market. Also—and this is a challenge not only for Nizhny Novgorod but for other Russian regions as well—an obvious lack of the knowledge of the English language was observed. It’s important to learn English, especially for students that major in technical subjects. This is critical both in promoting projects and in studying relevant markets. Technical students are not taught English properly, and not only in Russia but also in other countries I’ve been to. But we want our engineers to interact in international teams, for us to be able to bring home interesting, advanced and smart projects that do meet global standards.

When I was arriving in Nizhny, I was kind of skeptical. But I like what I have seen. And I expect the guys who pitched their projects earlier today to become millionaires one day.”

Fred Ledbetter, chief commercial officer, Virgin Connect (a Strategic Partner at InnoFest): “What I really liked was enthusiastic people with ideas and projects. They clearly are new at this, but they understand what they are trying to do, and now how to make sure it matches to something that can be used or solved in the world is their challenge.”

About InnoFest

Lobachevsky UNN hosted InnoFest for four weeks between November 18 and December 12. The event of regional significance was 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 brought together about 900 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.

RVC, one of this country’s key development drivers and the national fund of funds for innovation, provided support as General Partner.

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

Tags: InnoFest (16) / closing ceremony (0) /

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