Finance, business | Technology & innovation

U.M.N.I.K. as “tiny model of real life”: university perspective on cultivating business mindset

5 Jun '14
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

The Bortnik Fund, one of the earliest post-Soviet government programs put together 20 years ago to back small innovation business, has for years been pushing its U.M.N.I.K. competition (the Russian abbreviation for “Participant of Youth Science and Innovation Contest” which reads for Russians as “smart guy”). This is an initiative that participants themselves believe offers them “a serious start” and “invaluable experience” in building strategies to take their future products to markets. For example, in Nizhny Novgorod this year’s U.M.N.I.K. final was held in late May at the Lobachevsky State University (UNN), the region’s leading university that had done all the preparatory work to find contestants and screen their projects for final expert evaluation. UNN is obviously betting on the youth’s business initiative and appears ready to give young innovators a hand in transferring scientific knowledge into marketable solutions to problems that have plagued progress both domestically and across the world.

Research areas presented at U.M.N.I.K. at UNN this time included IT, medicine of the future, modern materials and technologies to create those, new devices and hardware systems, and biotechnologies.

The UNN-based final saw a wide range of participants from students and postgraduates to young scientists from across Nizhny Novgorod regional research institutes and design bureaus. The panel of experts assessing the projects featured top-notch university researchers and regional innovation business players.

According to the Technology Commercialization Center, a UNN department established just very recently to help innovators make their inroads into global markets, 48 finalists made it to U.M.N.I.K.’s UNN leg, following a rigorous set of screening procedures at scientific conferences, workshops, and smaller competitions across the regional universities.

On May 28 when the final was held, the best sixteen were ultimately picked, each now eligible for about $11,600 in prize money for two years’ R&D. Hardly a fortune, of course, but still a nice ‘prop’ for the winners to weather business storms that some may face as they continue to smarten up their solutions.

In a bid to change the world

Marchmont News talked to a few from the winning group after a grueling pitch session and awarding ceremony were over. The young innovators shared what they thought about the event and, most importantly, how the teams were considering taking their products to customers both domestically and internationally.

What is your project about, and do you expect any possible competitive advantages compared to what’s already out there in the market?

Mikhail Pavlov, ultrasound diagnostics physician, Nizhny Novgorod Regional Oncology Clinic: ”We’re trying to polish our technique for determining how sensitive a breast tumor is to pre-surgical chemotherapy. An obvious competitive advantage will be early diagnostics. Moreover, by knowing a level of oxygenation (amount of oxygen in blood) and the tumor’s vascular bed we will be able to put together a sensitivity forecast right after the first phase of treatment, an improvement that’s been impossible to achieve here so far.

At the moment, this is new to the wider market, too. Our scientific competitors, primarily western developers such as the Bruce Tromberg group at the University of California, Irvine, are only considering commercializing their own solutions. Our technology is expected to help medical institutions choose the best case-specific approach to chemotherapy
.

Alyona Kadomtseva, postgraduate, nanotech and biotech chair at Nizhny Novgorod State Technical University: ”Our project aims to develop an energy-efficient and waste-free germanium production technology. As the project unfolds, we will make sure it gives us a decrease in energy consumption, faster production with fewer stages, a lower chemical reaction temperature, and a much greater yield of the products after the reaction is completed.

Germanium as a substance has wide applications, including the most advanced sectors such as optical fiber, electronics (including radio electronics), and medicine. In our commercialization strategy we’re partnering with Germanium, a Krasnoyarsk-based company in Siberia which has decades of experience in producing the metalloid
.

Innokentiy Kastalskiy, research fellow at UNN: ”My project is focused on the development of a software complex to monitor and assess the functional status of neuron-glia signaling networks in the human brain, based on fluorescent imaging data.

While in today’s neurobiology practice optical imaging data can only be tabulated by applying what’s known as an interest area outlining technique—a time-consuming and strenuous process—our software product will add to the conventional approaches a number of unique methods of automatically searching for astrocyte oscillation sections, with new opportunities opening up for further cell morphology analysis.

Determining functional neuron-glia interactions could give neuroscience an advanced new set of tools to research into an array of cerebral pathologies, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc.

Thus far, this kind of approach has sparked interest from a number of leading neuroscientific laboratories in Russia, the U.S., Germany, the UK, and Japan
.

What do you think of the competition: short of expectations or about what you expected? What did it give you?

Mikhail was confident it was “invaluable experience”: ”I’m incredibly happy; I saw the other guys have a fourth or even fifth go with their pitches, and I myself tried for the very first time—and hit the mark right then and there! Thanks a lot to the organizers!

According to Alyona, such initiatives should continue: ”The competition is important as a fast track for many projects and a serious start for students and postgraduates.”

Innokentiy believes U.M.N.I.K. lived up to all his expectations and gave him confidence that gifted people would not be left alone here without support: ”I was the last in my group to pitch, and I could watch others offer a high quality level of presentations, and also prepare for possible questions from the jury. Participation gave me full understanding of what I’m doing and what objectives I’m pursuing by doing so.

What appears to be a significant role such competitions play in helping young scientists make good entrepreneurs was pretty much summed up in a comment by Gleb Belyaev, a UNN student and one of the winning cohort who has developed the Cardio-Analytics software complex to foresee one’s health status: ”This contest shows a tiny ‘model’ of the real life; future sales hinge largely on how exhaustive your message is about what you offer people.

Before we conclude, here’s what a permanent member of U.M.N.I.K.’s panels of experts thinks of the level of the projects pitched in late May at UNN. Alexei Umnov, the Vice Dean of UNN’s Department of Radio Physics and the CEO of Mobile Services Lab, a Nizhny-based innovation company, has seen quite a lot of ardent contenders over the past years: ”My general impression is that the level of projects rises from contest to contest, both in their technology components and—very importantly—in their business value. Participants have also learned to better present their ideas.

In fact, I can see U.M.N.I.K. as a program bringing the youth into innovation evolve into a well-organized and regular event already building its devoted expert community and a passionate young audience geared towards participation and aware of all the requirements for projects. To watch the program form an ecosystem around itself is very exciting.

Talking specifically about this most recent final, the past project pitches prompted me to think—perhaps for the first time—that there are so many young people already involved in innovation who are active, ready to walk the walk and may, in all likelihood, truly impact the development of Russia’s economy in the next ten or fifteen years.”
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Locations: Nizhny Novgorod

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