Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
One of the focal points of the InnoFest festival of youth innovation, a major four-week event that drew to a close about two weeks ago in Nizhny Novgorod, in the mid-Volga area, was to expose tech entrepreneurs and researchers from among students, postgraduates and professors from Lobachevsky UNN, the host of the festival and the region’s largest university, as well as from other local universities to as much experience and expertise from market-savvy experts as possible. Fifteen in-depth interactive master-classes were offered between November 18 and December 12, led by prominent specialists in their respective areas. Of course, the coaches paid most attention to time-tested ways of monetizing technology development efforts. Experienced innovators know that monetization starts—or falls through—when an idea is presented to a potential early-stage investor. The subtleties of a successful project pitch—and the blunders that will surely leave your project unsupported—were the focus of a master-class by Dr. Maxim Kiselev, the director of leadership programs at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a new type of university set up at Skolkovo, Russia’s largest innovation hub just outside Moscow.
Maxim has years of experience in management and consulting at a number of sizable Russian and international companies, including Severstal Group, TNK-BP, Bayer, DuPont and some others. He’s been with Skolkovo since 2011 and until September 2013 was responsible for the development of the Skolkovo Technopark.
As a scientist, Dr. Kiselev is focused on societal, ethical and psychological issues that arise in robotics, and is developing an STS direction at Skoltech (science, technology and society).
We talked to Maxim at the UNN Technology Commercialization Center just before his audience gathered for an interesting two-hour rendezvous:
Your opinion as manager and scientist about today’s start-ups at universities? You must have met a lot, including those in Russia’s provinces…
Yes, I have seen many different start-ups at universities. They are very diverse indeed, but I would give a general characteristic that many share.
Point one: the start-ups are appallingly few, especially if we take into consideration the upsetting global statistics, in which only one out of ten rides out the storms of its infancy. Point two: many of the start-ups are unsettlingly ignorant of what the commercial side of the business is, and what a business model for technology commercialization may be.
Well, generally it is understandable as scientists and developers are not expected to study marketing, sales techniques, etc.; it’s another field of knowledge. But here a very different problem arises: many are very reluctant to open doors for people who would join their teams and be tasked with exactly this—building a business. It’s traditional, deep-rooted distrust that underlies such conduct, I believe. That has caused serious snags in some of the university start-ups I know, particularly when it comes to teambuilding. A developer tries to do something all on his own, but reasons and circumstances far beyond his control prevent him from achieving results; he has no sufficient knowledge to cope with the task. I reiterate, though, that in my opinion, one engaged in sciences doesn’t have to be clued-up in business.
In your master-class, you’re focusing on a successful pitch. What should an innovator avoid and what should he accentuate in his presentation to an investor to keep the pitch from ending in an utter failure?
I have trained Skolkovo companies in ways of interacting with investors. More often than not those companies were recruited into the Skolkovo program from a completely different world of academic knowledge, and their leaders would have their own ideas of what an investor is, what he thinks of, and how to interact with him.
As a psychologist, I recall noting yet another fundamental difficulty in working with those. They were keen to extrapolate what they thought should be other people’s perceived love for their technology from their own unconditional fascination with their object of research. When during my entry-level pitch training sessions I asked them to describe in very simple words what their companies were focused on, these people failed to do so, because it had never occurred to them to think of their technologies in simple terms.
That’s how a myth takes shape: we only need to say—and they will understand us! Who will? Investors, who know well how to make money out of money but hardly have any coherent comprehension of the intricacies of technology? This is a very special terrain, and to successfully explore it one has at the very least to know the primer of it.
This is one side to the story. Another is what I call “dispositions,” a psychological term for something that predetermines one’s behavior. I always say during training sessions that dispositions can be very different, and the one that crops up first in our mind is usually the worst one. When people approach an investor, they say, “Please give us money.” Would you enjoy being asked for money? No one would. Money for what? The only correct and working signal to an investor is this: “Let’s make money together. We have an exciting thing, a technology, which we have developed and are now offering you partnership to jointly make money out of it.” And this produces an entirely different effect!
Another hurdle: people fail to see the true goal of their pitches. I usually ask an audience, “What, in your opinion, is the objective of your interaction?” “For them to give us money,” they reply. I ask again, “How do you envision this: a guy sits in a room, you tell him something, he gets carried away and dashes to you with his wallet wide open—is this the picture?” The only goal of a pitch is building a bridge to a continued conversation. There’s no other goal, especially with a max. 10-minute time limit for your presentation. All you need is to throw a hook and capture, and make sure what you do excites an investor and causes him to talk to you more and hopefully lead you both logically to an investment agreement.
I don’t want to mystify this art in any way. One can master it, and more. To successfully interact with any audience, knowing and practicing methodologies that enable it is a must.
In what way could Skoltech help start-ups from UNN or other universities?
Skoltech is completely open for any collaboration. For example, we have an MoU signed with UNN, as we know well that this is one of Russia’s strongest technology universities with solid traditions and marvelous potential.
The best help we could offer is by getting students and professors involved in the activities of our Centers for Research, Education and Innovation (CREIs). Skoltech is no ordinary university; we don’t have departments or chairs—only these Centers that are designed to also be completely open. People can join in Center activity by bringing their projects on the table.
For example, I know that UNN has strong expertise in energy. And we already have two Centers in the field of energy: the Center for Energy Systems with the focus on smart grids, and the Center for Carbon Energy. They are open for start-up teams; one can join in their work, and in an array of scientific events that Skoltech holds in plenty. We also have the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. These are paths, by which a start-up could be drawn to a Center, and the Center could help the team.
Lobachevsky UNN hosted InnoFest for four weeks between November 18 and December 12. The event of regional significance was aimed at assisting in the development of a youth innovation environment, encouraging transferable skills and activities, seeking out and supporting advanced ideas by the scientific youth, and fostering social and research integration within academia.
The festival brought together about 900 young scientists from Nizhny regional universities and research institutes, as well as high-level government officials and business people from both the domestic and international entrepreneurial communities.
RVC, one of this country’s key development drivers and the national fund of funds for innovation, provided support as General Partner.
The Festival’s Strategic Partners included Intel, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Connect and Bosch, three of the world’s major multinationals. Promsvyazbank, a sizable Russian bank, offered support as Corporate Partner. Regional Partners included MTS, a leading Russian telecom operator and retailer, and Rugasco, a Russo-Norwegian gas equipment JV.