Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
Earlier this year the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN) in the mid-Volga area became a founding member of a new—and potentially fast-growing—international association that aims to aid university researchers in entering national and global markets. Kendrick D. White, the UNN Vice Rector for Innovation, talks about the prospects that are opening up for the university as a result of this new interesting development, and what efforts preceded the success.
The Technology Commercialization Center—a new structure at UNN set up last year to help introduce Nizhny Novgorod technologies to broad markets—was very fortunate to understand very early the necessity to create a proof-of-concept center, which is the first PoC established in the Russian Federation. I believe it is in fact the first PoC in the former Soviet Union territory entirely.
Because of the success of the first proof-of-concept center at UNN our university was invited to join as a charter founding member of the International Proof-of-Concept Center Association initiated and created by MIT and its partner at Russia’s Skoltech. In creating this new Association, UNN joins other prestigious Russian universities such as ITMO in St. Petersburg, and also the Masdar Institute in the Middle East. And it’s our belief that the Association will grow dramatically over the next three years to promote the idea that PoCs should be added to tech transfer programs across all universities.
The necessity of this is that in assessing any new scientific discovery today, one cannot look at his own home market alone, or his own national market. One has to look at the global market. Today we live in a globally integrated economy, and any new discovery which is initiated at any university could be theoretically used to create a global company to solve global level problems.
Collaboration is essential to find the right partners wherever they may be. If you’re developing a technology in Nizhny Novgorod, you need to begin to think of how you’re going to develop that technology for Asian markets, Middle Eastern markets, European markets, North American markets, and South American markets. If you really have a cutting-edge new technology, you need to think globally.
People at any given PoC need to be able to pick up the phone and call any other PoC because these are the key LinkedIn network folks in any region; they know the people in their region. If we have a technology project and we think it might be interesting for the Asian market, I want to be able to pick up the phone and call a university in Singapore—and who would I talk to? I would talk to the head of a PoC there and say, “Look, we’ve got this technology idea here, and we think it’s applicable for your market. Can you help us identify a partner?” That’s exactly what proof-of-concept centers do, acting as systems integrators within their own communities and between different communities across borders.
Our vision is to use this International PoC Association to completely connect our PoCs in Russia with similar PoCs around the world. This is really the only way to develop very quickly globally driven companies which solve global level problems.
How does the system of innovation commercialization support look like at UNN?
We in the last year have had great support from the rector to create a comprehensive innovation commercialization ecosystem. We’ve taken the basic tech transfer office at the university and added to that a legal advisory team, a detailed technology assessment team, a proof-of-concept center, as well as the first venture mentoring network.
Other universities have developed individual elements of this system, but I believe this university is the first to create the entire package within its single structure. I could be wrong, and there could be similar systems in Moscow, but I think that those systems have grown within a specific Moscow environment where there are a lot of foreigners, expats and angel investors. What we have created in Nizhny Novgorod is a prototype system which I feel can be replicated across any other provincial regional city within Russia or within the CIS.
It’s not going to happen overnight. It took us one year, and I’d say that now we’re really operating. We assessed and packaged 11 projects during this past year, and that’s a good start. But it’s only a start. I feel that over the next four years we should package another 30 or 40 or maybe even up to 50 projects in the high technology sphere.
I think that over this period of time the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod will become recognized as one of the top regional universities developing new technology spin-outs which can and will attract financing from Moscow VC funds and business angels, and develop international partnerships. We have been able to take the vast resources of the university and create a system that I hope will support this progress.
What are the prospects for UNN introducing its scientific projects to actual business?
This is exactly what we’ve been working on. We’re trying to take the wish lists of corporations, Russian and foreign, and understand what problems these corporations face. And then our job is to go back to our scientists and try to find some that are working on solving problems that are similar. If there are any, we encourage them to focus specifically on the market needs, because that will be easier for us to commercialize.
If the professors want to commercialize their projects, they need funding. If there’s no government funding, we are obliged to try and find corporate funding. But that means the scientists should begin to work on real world problems, not only theoretical ones. Our job is to try and work with both sides, acting like a sort of marriage broker or matchmaker.