How the Skolkovo Foundation could help transform Russian tech

  • There have been huge changes in Russia over the past ten years. Monty Munford reports how the Skolkovo Foundation is helping invigorate a nation and how the next two years could transform it

It had been a decade since I’d been to Russia. My wife had been pregnant, it was winter and it took weeks to wade through the ex-Soviet Red Tape to finally procure a visa to visit the country. The five-day trip to St Petersburg and Moscow meant the constant company of a ‘guide’ who hectored us about the country and led us by our Western noses.

Even so, it was amazing. The night-train was like being in a Bond film, Red Square was correctly crusted with snow and the excitement of a city waking up was evident. Onion domes, huge plasma screens and the wonderful and the quirky Russian Space Museum, it was a trip to remember.

But it felt dangerous, especially with a pregnant wife. There were pickpockets everywhere, taxi-drivers who acted like tsars and an itchy Russian bear bristling with impatience to ‘catch up’ with the West. Chaos was omnipresent.

So, a decade later, it was time to go back, not as an expectant father but as somebody interested in technology. The visa was expensive, but easy to acquire through a London agency, there was no need to be accompanied by a guide while there… and it appears that ten years is a very long time in Russian politics and business.

Moscow was transformed and not only because it was autumn. Red Square was covered in grandstands for a choral concert, and not the snow that it should perhaps always be covered in. It also felt safe. Crime seemed to have been literally outlawed, taxi-drivers even spoke some English and it felt more like Paris than the Moscow I remembered.

Similarly, the climate for entrepreneurship and start-up support had changed. While Silicon Valley in California was created by an overspill from talent hired for NASA’s space programme, so it appears that Russia’ is benefiting from previous space R&D. With a Russian State directive that all Russian state companies such as Gazprom must invest 1% of their top line profits in R&D there is a commensurate budget to match the ambition of those who want the country to change.

In Skolkovo Moscow there are more than 620 start-ups being incubated as part of the Skolkovo Foundation’s mission to change the perception of the country. It wants to create a VC-friendly environment that will encourage investment from global companies and position Russia as a country that does business, echoing what Margaret Thatcher once memorably said about Mikhail Gorbachev.

The foundation was inaugurated in 2009 with a mission to change the perception of Russia as a mineral-producing country of gas and oil to one where entrepreneurs flourish and local businesses export their expertise.

It has certainly attracted attention: Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced this week that he will be coming to Moscow to meet Skolkovo in October.

Of the companies that are participants in the Skolkovo project, they are engaged in ‘clusters’ of biomedicine, energy, IT, nuclear, space technologies and communications. Each week the Skolkovo Foundation receives more than 40 new applications from companies.

One such company is Vizerra that has created software that enables architects, engineers and designers to turn their CAD models into immersive 3D worlds. It uses gaming and social technology to create interactive 3D experiences of real-world buildings and environments and brings true collaboration to AEC industry. The demonstration I saw was hugely impressive.

The company has been awarded accolades from Google and Forbes in Russia. Its clients include the Town Planning Committee in Barcelona, Skolkovo City itself and the Organising Committee of the XXII Olympic Winter Games and the XI Paralympic Winter Games of 2014 in Sochi.

Aside from these Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics there is the football World Cup taking place in 2018 and there are parallels to the way London prepared for the Olympics. Half an hour by taxi from Red Square, the Skolkov Park is beginning to take shape in the same way that the Olympic Park emerged in East London.

While the Park looks as if it has some way to go before it realised the ambitions of its organisers, part of the mandate is that it will host the G8 Summit in September 2014 and such deadlines always concentrate the mind. The recent opening of the impressive Cube building in the centre of the Park will be the first in an ongoing episode of milestones.

Out of the world’s top 200 universities not a single one is Russian, so the creation of a new Skolkovo university, in a partnership with MIT in Boston, is expected to address this imbalance. The new campus will also serve as a catalyst for talent and incipient entrepreneurship.

Consequently the next two years before the G8 Summit will be a time of great change for Moscow and will put my 10-year hiatus from the city into perspective. The Russians are coming, with a little bit of love, a lot of investment and, for now, a very friendly business face.