Feature stories | Technology & innovation

“Business is not dirty; it is the way societies advance”—will Russian academia be able to embrace that?

28 Sep '16
In an effort to become more competitive globally, Russian universities are attempting to reinvent themselves as new hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. In its most recent report Russia Direct took a closer look at what needs to be done to complete the transformation of the Russian university system. Here are the most eye-catching takeaways from this profound study.

The report titled “From University 1.0 to University 4.0: Nurturing Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Russian Academia” examines the role of the modern university using the framework of University 4.0, a paradigm for innovation and entrepreneurship developed by Russia’s National Technology Initiative (NTI). First and foremost, Russian universities need to re-think the link between teaching and research, both the editors and interviewed experts believe. For too long, these functions have been separated, and that’s led to an inability to commercialize new academic innovations, or to inspire students to launch new start-ups.

In the report, Russian universities’ attempts to modernize themselves, overcome their major institutional challenges and attract the best students, professors and investors have been outlined. Experts Russia Direct invited for forthright talk, of whom most are real heavyweights in their respective areas of expertise, presented their own views of how Russia can boost the knowledge economy and innovate its higher education system to help it move noticeably up in QS and Times’ Top 100 annual global rankings, while trying to lay it as bare as possible why Russia has so far failed to benefit commercially from its ideas and scientific potential.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, deputy director of the Russian Venture Company and one of the initiators and leaders of the National Technology Initiative. Alexandra Engovatova, associate professor of economics and innovation in the Department of Economics and deputy head of the Department for Research Policy and Research Management of the Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU):

The two emphasized a crucial role Russian universities should play in tech transfer from labs into the real economy. Russian academia has a great example of China and South Korea to analyze and creatively follow, they pointed out; over the past 30 years the two countries made a breakthrough in terms of international patenting activity within three important technological areas, including 3D printing, nanotechnologies and robotics, and their universities acted as infrastructure for accelerated development of transfer technologies.

There’s a different example, too, which is worth studying and following—that of the U.S., the UK and a number of other developed countries whose universities have contributed greatly to the forming of innovation ecosystems in their host regions.

Different economic models presuppose a choice of roles for Russian universities to play, but Russian academia must prepare itself to embrace both.

“The new role of universities in a knowledge society is best seen in the contribution of universities to the innovation development of a country, which is determined more and more by the value of newly created and commercialized intellectual property.” It’s a long and somewhat painful transition from University 1.0, a social institution that carries out the educational function, to University 4.0, a social institution that acts as a provider of future knowledge. “A university 4.0 becomes a leader in developing high-tech industries and is, therefore, capable of implementing the function of capitalizing its knowledge most efficiently.”

The experts believe the transformation is being made possible through NTI, a government-sponsored program designed to strengthen Russia’s position in global technology markets by 2035. Among other things, the Initiative aims to form integration mechanisms (by 2018) and innovation hubs (by 2035) on the basis of existing universities to meet the demands of the markets of the future. Mr. Kuznetsov and Ms. Engovatova underscored that “an NTI university is supposed to become an institutional player that is active in a range of areas: training specialists, conducting fundamental and applied research, building effective connections with the business community, creating efficient innovation infrastructure, and commercializing its research results (i.e. capitalizing knowledge).”

Georgy Laptev, associate professor, the head of MSU’s Innovation Business and Entrepreneurship Lab and the Master’s degree program in Innovation Management at the Department of Economics:

In his brief, yet in-depth analysis he talked about the role of a university as a supplier of both cutting-edge knowledge and skilled personnel businesses will benefit from.

“Modern universities that adhere to “entrepreneurial” or University 3.0 models actively interact with existing businesses and create start-ups themselves. The mere existence of such universities and their successful development in the highly competitive market is based on their global vision, developed infrastructure for technology transfer and favorable entrepreneurial ecosystem. Unfortunately, low demand for innovations from Russian businesses is still a substantial deterrent for Russian universities to transform according to the University 3.0 model.”

For the majority of Russian companies, he said, generating innovation is hardly a substantial source of competitive advantage. The cases of the successful creation of breakthrough products in Russia are rare. So what has to be addressed—and within the framework of NTI strategies as well—is this alarming disconnect between Russian academia and Russian industry, the expert pointed out.

Kendrick White, founder and CEO of Marchmont Capital Partners, advisor to the rector of the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (click here for a full interview for the Report):

He has seen Russia’s fledgling innovation economy in progress for more than two decades and knows both strengths and weaknesses of Russian academia. For him, the key issue is bridging the immense gap between Russia’s long history of scientific breakthroughs that have impressed the world and its equally long history of failure to commercialize its scientific initiatives.

With an array of time-tested models and instruments for tech transfer from academia into industry across the developed world, the problem is that “Russia cannot simply pick up some instruments that exist elsewhere and plant them down domestically. It should adapt the West’s best practices and apply them carefully into a working university ecosystem.

For more than 60 years the overriding paradigm in the development of the Soviet Union’s higher education was the separation of teaching practices (education per se) and research. Post-Soviet Russia continued the practice, and this is one of the reasons why it was not able to develop into an innovation-driven economy—unlike many competing economies in the West which “some 50 years ago realized that the best way to encourage creativity and innovation is by mixing together researchers and students. The best and brightest there understood that “bringing new blood into the system would force scientific researchers to continuously look for new answers to questions from young, enthusiastic and questioning students, thus, forcing them to develop new theories and adjust old thinking.

Russian universities need to become more entrepreneurial. For that, adjusting the rules of the game to the needs of an innovation economy is essential, with ownership over their own intellectual property granted to universities and proof-of-concept centers, which test the commercial viability of new lab discoveries, reaching out to actual businesses that feel the need for such discoveries to boost their own competitiveness.

Loren Graham, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):

He explained why he thinks many talented scientists are leaving Russia and what the authorities should do to reform the system.

“The main problem of education and innovation in Russia is not institutional (although that is also a problem) but political and societal.” Although Russian scientists and engineers are very talented, they live in a society that does not provide a nurturing environment for innovation, he argued. To change their society in a way that would foster innovation, the whole political, legal, economic, and social system would have to be reformed.

“Also, the mentality of Russian society needs to change. Business is not dirty; it is the way societies advance. Scientists do not demean themselves when they become interested in business; instead, they are aiding their society to become healthier and more prosperous. Without these sorts of deep basic changes, institutional reform by itself will not accomplish its goals,” Mr. Graham said.

“Brain drain is not so much the cause of the decline of Russian science as a symptom of it. Why do talented scientists and engineers want to leave Russia? It is not just because they think that science and innovation are not funded sufficiently in Russia (although that is certainly true), but because many of them do not want to raise their children in Russia as it currently exists.”

The expert believes Russians are a very creative people: “It would be entirely possible for Russian technology to occupy the position in the world that Russian literature, mathematics, and music currently do.”
Oleg Kouzbit, managing editor: “I’m glad you join us here and take The Bridge walk for Marchmont’s weekly review of the Russian regions’ innovative present and future. Stay close and you’ll find out more of how Russia is bridging the existing gap between its researchers and businesses.”
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