Oleg Kouzbit, Managing Editor, Marchmont Innovation News, reflects on the prospects of using the potential of working abroad compatriots for the Russia’s innovative development
Russia still painfully remembers its notorious ‘brain drain,’ an immense outflow of scientists and skilled engineers that plagued this country during ‘perestroika’ in the late 1980s and the tumultuous years that immediately followed the demise of the Soviet Union.
Some of those who emigrated were then lost as scientists forever; we all know how fast a Soviet university professor could become a taxi driver for lack of other employment abroad. Others have been a success in science and still thank God for ridding them of their ill-fated Motherland. There’s yet another group of former Russian nationals that remember who they are, and would love to seek closer ties with their colleagues inside Russia. Of course, it’s not just nostalgia that drives them; Russia’s scientific potential remains high, and collaboration could help researchers on both sides of the national border advance their science. On top of that, the most recent examples of inter-university cooperation, such as growing interaction between Nizhny Novgorod scientists in the mid-Volga area and their American colleagues or between Ural researchers and scientists in Israel and Southeast Asia, or the publishing of a scientific journal in Siberia’s Tomsk with an ethnic Russian and now a professor at Arizona State University as editor-in-chief, lead us to believe that scientists from different countries can actively interact in bringing their discoveries to market as well. This is exactly where Russian-speaking academic diasporas abroad could play a crucial role of a ‘binder’ and co-organizer of this tremendous process. Thus far, it’s been a bottom-up initiative developed by universities; but now it’s being backed by the Russian federal government.
On March 25, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United States, in DC, hosted a roundtable discussion focused on the U.S. experience in higher education, research and tech commercialization and how it could be tapped to improve the research and educational system in Russia.
On the Russian government side, the key speakers were Deputy Minister of Education and Science Lyudmila Ogorodova and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of the Russian Federation in the U.S. The United States was represented by the members of the Russian-American Scientists Association (RASA-USA) and personally by its president Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, Harvard Medical School. (RASA-USA is part of what Mr. Vasilyev referred to as “big” RASA, the association that brings together Russian-speaking scientists across the globe.) A large number of the top managers of Russian universities were also present.
According to Lyudmila Ogorodova, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science is currently “finalizing plans to create a working group for cooperation with Russian-speaking scientific diaspora”—a move which most Russian experts believe should have been made long ago.
The roundtable participants also discussed the international experience which some Russian universities, Moscow’s MEPhI, for one, have gained in collaboration with their foreign colleagues. But it’s not only Moscow-based academia that could share its best practices in scientific collaboration and market-oriented research. Deputy Minister Ogorodova underscored that the model of tech commercialization and the creation of regional innovation ecosystems, developed in the U.S. more than 20 years ago, has been successfully—and creatively—tailored to Russian turf at the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN). The government official believes the Nizhny experience “deserves to be replicated across the country.”
Two UNN vice rectors took part in the roundtable in DC this week—Viktor Kazantsev for scientific activity and Kendrick White for innovation. Mr. White, an American entrepreneur and VC investor with 20+ years of experience in Russia, is currently the head of the UNN Technology Commercialization Center (TCC). This department, fairly new to the Russian academic system, has been set up to do exactly this: bridge the gap between university lab ideas and the broad market.
Kendrick thinks that the roundtable participants “made some really important progress” in solidifying bonds between Russian scientific circles and Russian-speaking academic diaspora in the United States. In an exchange with Marchmont News he didn’t rule out the possibility for RASA-USA in the future to form an alliance with the International Proof-of-Concept Association (IPOCA), a coalition in which Lobachevsky UNN is the co-founder alongside MIT, the Masdar Institute (UAE) and two more Russian universities, including the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and St. Petersburg’s ITMO.
”Tremendous effort that should be applauded”
We asked RASA-USA president Nikolay Vasilyev to comment on the developments in DC. He believes that one of the most important results, outside the Russian Government’s decision to form a working group, was that “the Ministry, the Russian Academy of Sciences, vice-rectors from some of the major Russian universities and other invited guests and journalists learned about RASA, its mission, structure, activities.”
Mr. Vasilyev described some specific moves the RASA members have made to help Russian universities both in science and tech commercialization. For example, a RASA Center was set up last year on the premises of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. In the effort, six major laboratories at the university are now being led by German, French, British and American scientists who represent the Association. The RASA-USA president personally leads the medical technology lab.
RASA is currently in talks with the Tomsk Polytechnic University over a similar project in Siberia to be tentatively launched later this year.
In addition, the RASA-USA members are ready to offer expert assistance in tech evaluation to Russian universities that want to submit their projects to funders, such as the Skolkovo Foundation, Rusnano, etc.
Finally, RASA has established a network of International Centers for Advanced Studies (ICAS), which interacts with the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. Russian students, the winners of open competitions, are eligible for training at any of RASA’s 28 such centers in Europe, four in the U.S., and two in Asia.
These and other initiatives can help Russia make substantial headway in the implementation of its “5-100-2020” federal program that calls for the maximization of the competitive position of a group of leading Russian universities in the global research and education market. If successful, by 2020 the program will see at least five Russian universities permanently placed in the Top-100 rankings of the world’s best universities.
Mr. Vasilyev is positive the U.S. experience in scientific integration and commercialization is quite customizable to Russian realities. “For commercialization, the tech transfer process from a university/academia lab to a spin-off start-up must be optimized. Scientists need to learn the process of disclosing their inventions… communicating with IP attorneys. There’s not enough IP attorneys and tech transfer professionals; the capacity needs to be created,” he pointed out.
Talking about the Lobachevsky UNN experience in bringing university discoveries to market, the RASA-USA president said that the team is “making tremendous effort and should be applauded for that.” He emphasized that “RASA is willing to work with UNN to further enhance the commercialization out of academia in Russia, given that UNN is one of the role models of such a process in Russia.”