Abseiling Snipers and Innovators in Russia's Silicon Valley

With Skoltech, Russia hopes to unleash the innovation in IT previously seen in tanks and nukes...

Two snipers are abseiling down the seven-storied Hypercube building as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s helicopter soars over the barbed wire perimeter.

Inside the compound, 5,000 people relax as the helicopter disappears towards the horizon and the snipers follow. But this isn’t a surprise governmental visit to a military base in Chechnya or Georgia; this is the municipality of Moscow and the two-day Startup Village, the Skolkovo Foundation’s trade and networking event for Russian entrepreneurs and investors.

Located 45 minutes’ drive from the centre of Moscow, a slideshow of messages and images is beamed at the centrepiece Hypercube building and personalities come to the main stage, where the language is English and the people international. People in suits, not trainers, are ebullient here, almost triumphant, especially after the Prime Ministerial visit.

But the future state of Skolkovo, where the Skolkovo Innovation Centre on this 400-hectare site will eventually house 25,000 people with their own set of laws, is still finding its feet. It feels like a heavy-handed government project, more like a Kremlin Valley than a Silicon Valley, but the aspirations are high.

The Skolkovo project is an ecosystem in itself and an 85-billion rouble ($2.6bn) hub funded by the Russian Ministry of Finance. It comprises the Innovation Centre that will be home to local and foreign startups as well as extensive R&D centres for more than 30 global companies such as Intel, Cisco, Samsung and Siemens.

There is also the Skolkovo Science and Technology (Skoltech), a 1,200-strong institution that wants to be one of the world’s biggest universities. It has engaged the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an advisor, a deal that Skolkovo’s President, Viktor Vekselberg, says will see the Skolkovo Foundation pay MIT $300m.

The success of Skolkovo is vitally important to the future direction of Russia and a standard-bearer for a new kind of Russia beyond technology. Whether it will change the country’s inward-facing domestic agenda to one that will open up its vast scientific expertise to the global market and the commercialisation of these talents, is moot and by no means certain.

Oleg Syutin is Vice President for Foreign Economic Activity at Skolkovo and formerly a technology executive at Microsoft and Intel. He points out that while Prime Minister Medvedev has been seen as the driver of Skolkovo, President Putin maintains that he has always been behind the project.

Twice over the past six months President Putin has reminded the Russian people in his weekly address that Skolkovo was his idea. It should be remembered that 25% of all Russian patents in the past 12 months have come from Skolkovo.

“The Russian government has been very critical at how slowly Skolkovo has taken to work and is understandably impatient about results. We have made mistakes and will probably continue to make them, but we have very strong support,” Syutin says.

His positive words are to be expected from a Skolkovo representative, but take a look around the Startup Village and it’s possible to see how the vision could be realised. The entire infrastructure such as electricity, water, sewage disposal and drainage is in place; even the mandatory artificial lake is full.

Startup Village, which was funded by Skolkovo, was not a one-off event. Over the previous month it had covered 21,000 kilometres and visited 16 cities across the country. From Siberia to the Southern Steppes and across to the Pacific Ocean, there appears to be a nationwide need for innovation to be recognised.

Skoltech, The University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands and the Russian Vavilov Institute of General Genetics have set up the first Center for Research, Education and Innovation (CREI), the type of deal that Alexei Sitnikov, Vice President of Development at Skoltech, says will define the success of Skolkovo.

“Russia has always made great tanks and also perfect nuclear weapons, so we are an innovative country. In maths and science we are leaders of the world and not just in IT software and hardware,” Sitnikov says.

“As for Skolkovo, it may indeed fail on many counts, but it will change the rules of the game and then investors will come. The Russian government had to risk and it still has to risk.”

But it appears that the present government is not for risking and may even be closing the door on risk so perhaps the last word should go to Victor Vekselberg, President of Skolkovo.

“Skolkovo is a long-term project and aimed at modernising the Russian economy. Our mission is to create an innovation-friendly environment that will enable Russian scientists and entrepreneurs to realize their dreams without leaving Russia,” he says.

Kremlin Valley isn’t a phrase that rolls easily on the tongue, so perhaps Skolkovo Valley would be a better description. Either way, the gestation of the Skolkovo project won’t be boring, even if abseiling snipers down its Hypercube centerpiece are unlikely to be seen again.


Monty Munford has written about digital innovation for Wired, the Daily Telegraph and many other titles, often looking at the impact technology has on Africa and Asia. He runs his own site at www.mob76outlook.com and has also starred in Bollywood films.