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Skolkovo’s Innovation Center: Helping Ideas Take Root

A visit to Russia's "science city" reveals a garden of ideas growing.

Our technical team at Our Russia was afforded a unique opportunity tour Skolkovo last week. We also discussed with key executives of Russia’s version of “Silicon Valley” the uniquely ambitious plans that differentiate Russia’s science city from all previous endeavors. 

Russia’s first attempt at a science town since Soviet times, has goals and initiatives which are quite different from any previous project of the type. As a basis for creating a real and tangible foundation for invention, Skolkovo is not simply intended to be a research or production hub, but a fully functioning city where schools, shops, automated transport, and an entire infrastructure are to be built from scratch, over the next 10 years. But the vision is not simply to fashion a copy of Silicon Valley in the US, Skolkovo is intended to be a manifest backbone of a greater civic experiment. While some may argue this Russian effort is simply intended to replicate the success of Silicon Valley or other Adlershof in Berlin, the reality is far more appealing. Silicon Valley is an entity that grew up to serve technology, Skolkovo is being raised up for technology and society to coexist. The difference is of monumental importance. 

At its center, Skolkovo’s structure now is formed by the University, and the Technopark. Situated alongside, the Congress Center and various office edifices, apartments, and stores, etc. these elements all serve as a nicely functioning small community. But, what is Skolkovo in reality? Zhores Alferov, the Nobel laureate in Physics said: 

“Skolkovo — is not the territory, it is the ideology"

I was invited to visit Skolkovo by the foundation’s director, Alexsei Gonnchenko (image below). Since I was unable to make the trip to Moscow, I asked my co-founder at Our Russia, Aleksandr (Sasha) Shatskih and his wife Natalya if they could make the trip from their offices in Pskov. The team met with not only Alexei, but with the head of Skollovo’s Robocenter, Albert Yefimov (below). Both Sasha and Natalya were duly impressed, as I was initially, at the openness and enthusiasm of Skolkovo people. As it turned out, sending Our Russia’s resident “geeks” provided us with a special peek at what really makes this experiment so cool. 

© Photo : Vladimir SamarinAlbert Yefimov (l) and Alexsei Gonnchenko (r) talk with Sasha and Natalya
Albert Yefimov (l) and Alexsei Gonnchenko (r) talk with Sasha and Natalya - Sputnik International
Albert Yefimov (l) and Alexsei Gonnchenko (r) talk with Sasha and Natalya
Comparing Skolkovo’s Innovation Center to Adkershof, Sasha also made mention of his respect for the noted professor, Kalus Thyssen, whom he’d met on visiting the German tech center. Apparently, according to our geeky couple, all comparison in between these two civic engagements begins and ends with brilliant scientists like Thyssen, and his counterparts innovating robots and more in Russia. Short version, there is no comparison. In just six years the Skolkovo Innovation Center has, in our humble views, utterly surpassed 19 years of effort at Adlershof. Sasha gives his reasons for this.

The biggest point of differentiation in between Skolkovo and Adlershof (or Silicon Valley), is that Skolovo is not about inventing or producing technology, it’s about existing as an effective tool for implementing stunning ideas, for bringing those ideas to life. I have my own reasoning on this, a reason galvanized by the concept of an organic atmosphere of creativity. Better still, Skolkovo ventures outside convention in the way ideas are cultivated too. Sasha offers his example:

“So you have an idea you think is good? Excellent! Send it to the expert committee, a commission of world experts drawn at random, and anonymously, for a selection in sheer objectivity.”

The more than 250 randomly selected experts from different countries know absolutely nothing of the participants in  Skolkovo’s selection process. Likewise, contestants know nothing whatever about those who will choose the best ideas. Unlike the system I am familiar with in the United States, a system powered by venture capital and more often a “coolness” or popularity factor, the Russian variant seeks to enrich absolutes. I’m sorry to say, after having been a technology writer for a decade covering US innovation, innovation in the west resembles pop culture and celebrity value, as often as practical excellence. I think this is a fair statement. Albert Yefimov offered this with regard to the proving of the Skolkovo experiment:

“The world is not flat anymore, even though some keep thinking of it as super-connected place where you can live and work no matter where your business. It has irregularities – in order to get something done in IT or robotics, which both migrate to cyber-physical, we need the right people, the right connections, with the right devices and with the best mentors. All of this will be available, all in a matter of a 20 minute journey.”

The Skolkovo robotics guru went on to parlay for us the real mission we’ve sought to outline for you. Yefimov went on to say; “One cannot get in touch with world renowned team of ExoAtlet, without landing here at Skolkovo.” In essence the human interface, interlacing with technology via this civic experiment, it demands that participants exist in the ecosystem of Skolvoko. This place outside Moscow will eventually become “THE” place to be to be connected to these stunning technologies. While the internet and digital will certainly make use of the developments, the social experimentation is about a local community, a nest, for raising a new kind of future. Yefimov tells us; “Skolkovo, even city roads and buildings will eventually become our testing grounds. This is in the works as soon as safety requirements are acknowledged and respected.”

© Photo : Vladimir SamarinSasha (l) and Natalya (r) talk with Skolkovo’s innovators about the future of the experiment
Sasha (l) and Natalya (r) talk with Skolkovo’s innovators about the future of the experiment - Sputnik International
Sasha (l) and Natalya (r) talk with Skolkovo’s innovators about the future of the experiment
This is the “magic” that Skolkovo promises. The creators of the best ideas receive grants, and a place to produce their prototypes. According to Sasha, production capacity for 1,000 units is possible. The Innovation Center of Skolkovo therefore eliminates several problems of developers, which Sasha enumerates: 

Innovators have no need to seek investors. There’s also no need to worry about where and on what means to embody an idea. Skolkovo “residents” dive into a community of dedicated people, at every level. New opportunities for implementing ideas are resident in the whole community.

So the intended purpose of Skolkovo, to help create a start-up companies that will generate new technologies, is long since underway. The initiative is already leading to science that bears fruit for the economy. And the creators of these start-ups earn good money as one end result, which Shasha contends, is what will perpetuate the good work.

Alongside Sasha’s enthusiasm, Natalya also pitched in with the practical side of viewing Skolkovo. The vast potential of Innovation Center Skolkovo does not come without costs. Natalya points out, the costs of leasing at the science city equals office space in Moscow. And it is not currently possible to live on side at Skolkovo for even grant recipients, a hurdle Natalya tells me will be resolved by 2017. She also points out, that Skolkovo’s vision of fundamentally transforming education, science, and tech development, is more expensive than operating using traditional methodologies. But this is always the essence of innovation; the paradigm is never achieved with great ease. 

At the moment five basic directions of development are resident in Skolkovo, they include; IT, Biomedical, Energy, Space, Nuclear power, and the soon to launch Agriculture aspect. To support these endeavors, there’s already a business center, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Open University, Skolkovo School, High School, along with research laboratories and infrastructure. In my talks with Alexsei Gonnchenko recently, the subject of future Skolkovo accomplishments has come up. And Sasha and Natalya also iterate, the true potential of this social-technical experiment will manifest itself more clearly once the aforementioned growth draws more talented young people, more scientific, technological, and entrepreneurial competence. Alexsei’s focus has largely been in helping these young thinkers ramp up their ideas via the Skolkovo Foundation efforts. 

© Photo : Skolkovo FoundationThe ultimate value of ingenuity, our lives truly enhanced by technology
The ultimate value of ingenuity, our lives truly enhanced by technology - Sputnik International
The ultimate value of ingenuity, our lives truly enhanced by technology
In conclusion, I quizzed both Sasha and Natalya on what they found most impressive about Skolkovo at this stage. Both Our Russia partners agreed, the medical exoskeleton “ExoAtlet” is by far the most compelling potential they discovered on their tour. Yefimov’s Robo-laboratory has made amazing progress in many areas, but none more engaging than robotics already helping wheelchair bound human beings, to get up and walk.


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