russian-startup
Business Management

Another Type of Russian Revolution Ferments within Skolkovo

One of the delights about visiting Russia is a meal of blinis and caviar. This fare of Russian pancakes and sturgeon eggs does to the palate what some Russian writers can do to the soul: it captivates, awakens and satisfies.

Recently, however, the delights of Russian delicacies have not been top of the menu for global observers after the events in the Ukraine. Three months of violence in East Ukraine and the ‘accession’ of Crimea to the Russian Federation after demonstrations in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities have led to a civil war that may yet lead to the partition of the country.

The involvement of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine has many reasons, not least Moscow’s fear of any form of ‘Russian Spring’ arising from the events there. President Putin appears to be taking no chances; ‘crush the dissent there, before it takes root here’ seems to be his motto.

So another Russian Revolution, almost a century after the previous one in 1918 is an unlikely scenario, but that doesn’t mean that Russia isn’t being changed from within. The gradual rise of Russian entrepreneurs may yet be pivotal in the future of the country and a recent event, the Startup Village tour, could be the catalyst for this change.

This tour is in its second year and on both occasions has ended in Moscow with a two-day event that brings together investors, startups, accelerators and all the other elements of a tech ecosystem to celebrate the advent of Russian entrepreneurship.

On the opening day of the event earlier this month, Viktor Vekselberg, the Skolkovo Chairman even referred to Russia’s diet of blinis when he opened the event, saying that “all of the pancakes we bake together will be successful”.

This remains to be seen, but the tour itself began in March this year and visited 27 Russian cities in total to foster entrepreneurship and a startup competition where winning entries had the chance to pitch their ideas in Moscow. A total of more than 750 entries saw 21 of these startups do so earlier this month.

The man behind this initiative is an interesting person and, surprisingly, he isn’t Russian. He’s from Finland, a country that hasn’t always had the best relationship with its neighbour. His name is Pekka A. Viljakainen and he has an even more interesting nickname… The Bulldozer.

This nickname moniker was given to him many years ago by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer because of his energy and optimism in getting things done. Viljakainen is a friend of presidents and royalty and was the founder of Finnish IT giant, Tieto. Moreover, he has a long record of entrepreneurship, having set up his first company when he was only 13 years old.

His role in shaping Russia’s entrepreneurial future comes through his role as advisor to Viktor Vekselberg at the Skolkovo Foundation, the initiative behind the Startup Tour that is building a tech city on the outskirts of Moscow and is the venue of choice for the Moscow leg of the tour.

“We want to replicate the Skolkovo model across all of Russia,” Viljakainen says. “We had 3,770 visitors to the Moscow event in 2013, which more than doubled to almost 9,000 in 2014, and there will be 35,000 by 2020. The potential for Russian companies is limitless. Not a single prescription drug is actually produced in Russia, so pharma is a big area for growth and robotics technology will also push Russian innovation forward.”

When asked about recent events in Ukraine and how he is perceived in his home country by his fellow Finns for driving entrepreneurship in Russia, Viljakainen pulls no punches in his reply.

“Business and jobs are great peacemakers is all I will say about the situation in the Ukraine. As for Finland, I have been naked in a sauna with 95% of Finnish decision-makers, so I know how to work with them,” he adds.

At present there are more than 1,050 startup companies in Skolkovo project and it is planned to increase that number. The concept of the Skolkovo ecosystem was enhanced to include not only startups and key partners such as global multinational companies that will set up R&D centres in Skolkovo, but also medium-size enterprises.

“Startup Village is an event where you can see the future in the form of new technologies and young entrepreneurs who will form the business landscape with their innovative developments,” says Alexander Chernov, VP for External Communications and Advertising of Skolkovo Foundation. 

“This year the idea for the event was to inspire young people to pursue their creative ideas, to set up their own innovative companies and to show the way for development directions in the industry. We have established conditions so that more young companies can be created.”

The winner of the startup competition and a $26,000 prize was Ekzorobotiks with its ExoAtlet project, designed to be the first artificial human exoskeleton produced in Russia. The company also wants the product to provide disaster relief and help non able-bodied people.

Nanooptica and Radio Gigabit shared second place and more than $17,000 each with their planar holography technology and radio-relay systems respectively. Aside from these three prize-winners, the remaining 18 finalists received more than $4,000 each. All 21 companies from across Russia now have the option to become residents at Skolkovo.

Next year’s Russian Startup Tour is expected to visit more than 35 cities, up eight on this year as a moveable feast to encourage and foster Russian entrepreneurship.

No doubt there will be many obstacles ahead, not least the ongoing geopolitical situation in the Ukraine, but signs of innovation are everywhere.

 

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.

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Monty Munford

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.

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