Kendrick White: “UNN could become the centerpiece of one of Russia’s most attention-grabbing innovation clusters”
17 Feb '14
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
Here’s the closing part of an exchange I had a couple of weeks ago with Kendrick D. White, an American entrepreneur and the recently appointed vice rector for innovation policy at the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod. If you missed the first part, or would like to brush up your impression of how things began, you can easily get back to it by clicking here. Now Kendrick is not only spelling out what he believes university innovators have got a real feel for but is also mulling over some foreseeable future—and what might be down the road for both UNN and the region of Nizhny Novgorod.
You must have seen enough of UNN’s technology projects in a range of sectors. Anything really worth talking about here, to your mind?
I’ve seen absolutely tremendous potential here in the biomed research area, including medical instruments, medical devices, biotechnologies, cancer detection mechanisms, X-ray mechanisms, etc. What I can say is that the university has technology to create an entirely new generation of medical diagnostics for the human being.
As we leap into the 21st century and go forward, I think it’s absolutely understandable that we as a human species are going to become more and more focused on longevity, quality of life, health, nutrition, etc. And I think, as we evolve we’re going to be thinking of how we improve our physical state. For that we need diagnostics; we need a deeper understanding of how our body works, how our minds work, how nutrition affects psychology, how effectively our brains work.
These are all critical things; we can explore the cosmos but we can also explore our own systems as a species, and improve the quality of our life. These are what I would call the big problems.
How do we reduce hunger? How do we improve food production? How do we adapt to dramatically changing climates? How do we adapt to potential biomedical threats that face the human population in the form of pandemics and so on? How do we improve our immunity systems? How do we improve our ability to digest food products and use that to improve our state of being?
The human species has become very dependent on things such as antibiotics and other types of external chemical drugs which our body becomes addicted to. This is not very healthy. We need to think of how to protect our bodies before we get sick; how to avoid sickness. I believe this new generation of medical sciences can be evolving directly out of Lobachevsky.
Yes, I think we have the capability to come up with solutions which can help evolve the human species. Maybe what I’m saying sounds a little bit crazy but I really believe this and I think we can play a very important role in helping develop new generations of devices and medical implants and detection systems, assessment systems for our body, and so on.
Any other focal areas you would call pivotal here at UNN?
Clearly, UNN has absolute strength in radio technologies, physics, mathematics—and also in the basic form of how we communicate with one another.
As a species again—I’ll speak in a macroeconomic way—our world is becoming smaller day by day because of the devices we use to link up to each other. We have become globally interconnected, and our social networking capabilities have risen to such a level that it really doesn’t matter where you live—it doesn’t matter! If you’re a scientist interested in a certain topic, you can find partners all over the world. With the technological communication mechanisms currently available you can share information and regularly collaborate. Your physical location is less important than your ability to connect with different cultures and different people in different languages, and find the right team of people to work with.
The Lobachevsky University has always been a pioneer in radio engineering and physics, developing new generations of lasers which can be applied in different forms, generating new forms of mathematical algorithms and software programs. These can directly impact our lives, and impact the integration of business people into projects that cross boundaries.
In a nutshell, I think in medical devices and biomedical solutions, in IT and in chemistry solutions Lobachevsky has one of the best fundamental science bases in the Russian Federation.
As the vice rector, you obviously take a lot of stock in UNN and its potential—otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen the career. But other universities across Russia have their own brilliant brains, too. Why UNN? And why Nizhny, by the way? Some people say the city barely has any future as a business hub because it is ‘eclipsed’ by Moscow which is so close by and accumulates most resources.
Answering the first part of your question—why UNN. As I said, we have great fundamental science here. And we have terrific scientists. So, to the degree that we can form venture management teams around these scientists and promote their projects to investors, this is going to draw attention to UNN as a progressive entrepreneurial driven university—and to Nizhny as a progressive entrepreneurial driven city.
Now—why Nizhny. Nizhny Novgorod was historically known as a “pocket of Russia;” it was more recently referred to as the third capital of Russia, too. I think that in the future, we can come back to this and be really the third capital of Russia.
What makes me believe this is not a pipe dream? Well, here we have not only intellectual resources, not only more than 200,000 university students in the oblast and dozens of the Academy of Sciences’ laboratories and institutes. We also have a legacy from the last 70 years of the development of very serious production facilities, including automotive, shipbuilding, aircraft-building, oil processing, metal processing, chemical processing, and more. We have one of the most comprehensive industrial bases in the Russian Federation; and that surrounds a very beautiful center of the city which is pleasant to live in, which has a low cost of living, and is attractive to live in.
I disagree with those thinking Nizhny is ‘eclipsed’ by Moscow. On the contrary, I would say the proximity to the capital brings advantages over some of the other innovation clusters in Russia—in Siberia, for example, which are much further away from Moscow.
The truth is that today, “the pocket of Russia” is Moscow, whether you want it or you don’t, and it’s the center of Russia. For an investor or business partner, it’s so easy to go from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. It’s a 3.5-hour trip on a beautiful German “Sapsan” speed train. It takes little effort to come here, have meetings, and go back to the capital. So, this is a very easy place to work. And on top of that, it’s a beautiful city.
What do you think UNN is still missing on its thorny journey to more observable places in domestic and global university rankings?
I firmly believe that during the next 20 years Russian universities will eventually play a leading driving role in creating regional innovation clusters. This is where the science is created. If we can take the local science and develop teams and products, we can then attract investment and strategic partners to those projects. That will create a more dynamic start-up ecosystem in Nizhny Novgorod.
In my opinion, UNN could become the centerpiece of one of Russia’s most attention-grabbing innovation clusters. The key thing is that creating successful new start-ups which are focused on solving global problems and then introducing these scientific innovation projects to the financial and investment community, thus attracting start-up capital—this will in itself be a very important element in raising the profile of Nizhny Novgorod.
What we need to do is not only create this ecosystem but also create a reputation that we can make start-ups.
Why is Cambridge, Massachusetts, considered one of the top innovation ecosystems in the world? Because it has MIT. MIT is the number one university in the United States to generate start-ups. And it has been for years.
Silicon Valley is also a top region which spawns start-ups. The creation of new companies is one of the key fundamental things which define a successful innovation-driven ecosystem. So, if we can help build start-ups, and attract funding to those start-ups, those companies will eventually become businesses to hire more people and then go out in search of production facilities.
We have many underutilized production facilities in Nizhny Novgorod. We have experienced workers in engineering backgrounds. We have a workforce. We have a growing number of techno-park and incubator facilities here. This is a very good environment for companies to start and then expand.
If the Lobachevsky University can position itself as a driver for the innovation economy, we can play a big role in promoting a start-up culture in our region. I have big hope that the administration of the region will support us for that, and support our students and professors. If we have a good environment to create businesses, then effectively what we can do is help these businesses stay here and not move to Moscow, or California, or Tel-Aviv, or Cambridge, Massachusetts.
That’s how a true innovation ecosystem can really be created in this region. And if UNN succeeds in throwing itself into this process, there’s little else it would have to do to have its profile and global rankings improved significantly.