Technology & innovation

Provincial saga between black and White: chronicle of frenzied TV and faith in Russia

5 Jul '15
Academic and business communities both in Russia and abroad, as well as the media, were galvanized and turned into a huge buzzing beehive of opinions and emotions for all this past week over an incident that is rare in any country and just a year ago might have appeared too out-of-the-way to believe. Within a few mind-boggling days marked by the power of television one person, Vice Rector for Innovation Kendrick White working at the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod in Russia’s Volga area, walked a staggering way from being unexpectedly and inexplicably fired from his position after many months of proven success to learning that he’d never been laid off and his activity on the Nizhny university’s innovation front would continue—in some capacity. Outside of Nizhny, many would hardly have noticed the local saga but for the protagonist’s American passport and the overall climate of mistrust and misunderstanding which Ukraine-fanned geopolitics and ensuing war of sanctions between Russia and the West have brought into being, and in the midst of which this particular U.S. entrepreneur and VC expert happened to find himself. Observers hope there’s an imminent end to this complication. They are positive that the dust will soon settle, leaving it to history to deliver a verdict as to who was to blame, if at all, and whether it was just a terrible mistake or a predetermined attack. But long before tensions showed any sign of waning last week, there came a swarm of comments from prominent players across academia and innovation business circles in Russia and globally who care for a Russia of tomorrow, a Russia that leads and has no need to lash out, and who would not want to see what may now be only misunderstanding metastasize into a full-blown witch hunt on both sides of the Russian border.

Here’s but a fraction of the comments the ‘culprit’ in this ‘spy story’ received in just a couple of days. No editing or embellishment—just the people’s feelings.

Arseniy Dabbakh, Managing Partner, Rye, Man & Gor Securities, Moscow:

The recent TV story on the Russia 1 TV channel on June 28 about Kendrick White, an American citizen in charge of innovation development and tech commercialization at Lobachevsky UNN, allegedly imposing alien values and orchestrating the siphoning of the “best brains” from Russia is a vivid example of Soviet-like propaganda pushing this country to self-isolation and search for foes. This example shows how lawmakers’ prejudices multiplied by television’s propaganda muscle make an atmosphere of fear and distorted perceptions of reality.

The negative newscast brought about the relieving of Mr. White of his duties and a discussion of which positions foreigners cannot take.

I’ve been honored to work with him and know well what he does, what projects he develops, and what initiatives he pushes.

Kendrick White, a foreigner, is in fact one of Russia’s most devoted patriots. In addition, he knows innovation business very well and helped kick-start the development of venture investing in the late 1990’s when there were no development institutions like RVC, Skolkovo or others. In the early 2000’s Kendrick managed a venture fund that through investments and support of young businesses brought to fruition a multitude of successful projects, including, for example, Bridgetown Foods (foodstuffs), Speech Technology (biometric tech), Nizhpharm (pharma), and others. These companies continue to successfully operate and their founders develop new business endeavors in Russia.

Kendrick has worked a lot in various fields and gained esteem from not only me; he’s well known in government institutions as well as in business. He’s spent much time developing innovation infrastructure, and his concept of tech commercialization centers, brought to life at the Nizhny university, has been found appealing to other national universities. He managed to put together cooperation programs between his university and technology centers in the U.S. and other countries. Fostering ties between business and scientific communities is what he can do best. He’s been planning lately to start creating a venture fund to invest in early-stage innovation projects.

Yes, Kendrick is an American citizen; but he’s a longtime Russian as well. He knows and loves Russian culture, customs and traditions; he has a family, house and friends in Nizhny Novgorod. He’s always wanted to live and work in Russia, and not just in Russia but in a region rather than in a well-fed Moscow.

I hope such negative TV programs, instilling hateful attitudes to foreigners, won’t rid Russia of its true friends.

Maria Adamyan, Founding Partner,; worked for the Higher School of Economics’ Business Incubator:

I’m speechless… I met Kendrick back in 2003 when he still was at Quadriga Capital. At our very first meeting I was impressed to realize how patriotic his attitude was towards Russia as a whole and Nizhny Novgorod in particular.

Am I surprised? Not at all. It’s naïve to expect anything different from a country that lets cynicism and xenophobia win. But it’s so sad.

Evgeny Bokov, Director, Start Invest Association of Business Angels, Nizhny Novgorod:

Kendrick White has made (and hopefully will be making) a considerable impact on the development of venture business in the Nizhny Novgorod region and beyond. Before he arrived here the local business community hardly had any clear comprehension of what angel investors and VC funds were, and how peculiar the nurturing of high tech start-ups might be. It’s Kendrick’s first public lectures more than a decade ago that prompted many of the innovation investors and entrepreneurs that are successful today to give their hearts to this area.

Marchmont Capital Partners, the local company he set up, would organize conferences on a regular basis to discuss problems of venture business and pre-seed start-up packaging, and would actively join similar events partners put together. Not only his team members, now professionals in the venture sector, but also many other recognized specialists refer to Kendrick as their first teacher.

Well, perhaps it is indeed a sign of the time that appointing a foreign national to a position that opens access to projects having national security potential or promising Russia a technological leapfrog may look premature. However, if this has come to pass, the mistake should be corrected in a more delicate way. Explaining this to Kendrick tactfully and long in advance, thanking him for the great job he and his team have done, and offering him another status would have been enough. I’m sure he would have understood everything. But taking it to national television (I still have little idea about what they were accusing him of) via a high-rating program like that one was not professional. Unfortunately, our journalists often have no qualms about behaving this way.

Tony Pleschinger, Head, Research and Technology Center, Bosch Russia:

The scientific potential in Russia is enormous. Thousands of scientists work in hundreds of universities and institutes. Brilliant people with brilliant ideas.

But there is a gap between science and industrialization. The ideas from universities do not find their way to industry—so their big value is not used for society.

The Tech Commercialization Center under Prof. Kendrick White is the right innovation in university structure at the right time and at the right place. Mr. White builds up an ecosystem of innovation which forms a chain from idea to research and development, to market introduction.

His work is of huge value in the whole university landscape of Russia. Several universities have successfully followed his way of establishing a tech transfer center. And more will in future, because it is the right way to connect scientists with industry.

Todd J. Lefko, an American writer and businessman with 27 years of experience working in Russia:

Kendrick White understood the future. This was a future based upon the infrastructure of knowledge and the creating of a Russia where the true asset are the minds and skills of the Russian people. He’s one of the few non-Russians who believe that Russian scientists could build a future in Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Irkutsk, Tomsk or any of a hundred Russian cities.

Kendrick has been one of the major salespeople of the potential of Russia worldwide. If he is lost to Russian science as it is today, then it is truly a loss for the future of Russian science.

Vladimir Antonets, CEO, Nizhny Novgorod Agency for Knowledge-intensive Technologies:

I met Kendrick White about 20 years ago. He’s always been a cheerful enthusiast who likes to live and work in Russia. He got married here, and has children. He also has a house in a village above a bank of the Volga to spend summers in.

He’s always found it tormenting to see contrast between the ingenuity of a Russian scientific mind he applauds and the uttermost disorientation of this very mind when it comes to choosing its application for the benefit of ordinary people. Kendrick, on the contrary, can navigate easily through that and understands venture business very well. He’s introduced the world to quite a number of projects that found neither enough interest nor support in Russia.

Kendrick has acted as an educator, too, promoting innovation development in an eye-catching manner and bringing in many experts. This is an answer to the question Mr. Kiselev, the TV propagandist, raised in his show about how an American ended up being a vice rector for innovation at a Russian university.

I find it hard to believe that it was the pressure put by an aired concoction of facts, lies and misrepresentations that influenced Kendrick’s status in our university. This all looks like standing at attention after someone’s order. If you have specific objections to his work—express them openly. Otherwise it’s a shame!

Anatoli Korkin, Director, Russian Science Technology and Education Consortia (RUSTEC) Initiative at Arizona State University; President, Nano and Giga Solutions; Editor-in-Chief, Resource-Efficient Technologies journal:

I was introduced to Kendrick White in October 2009 at a training course for young entrepreneurs where we both delivered lectures. Pedagogical talent and entrepreneurial enthusiasm are perhaps some of his most gripping features, and I’m proud that I can call Kendrick my friend and colleague.

At my request, Kendrick put together a business innovation section at the Fourth Nano and Giga Challenges in Electronics, Photonics and Renewable Energy 2011 at the Moscow State University, and then participated with an attention-grabbing lecture in an international school in Kazan in October 2013 which Arizona State University and Tatarstan’s Idea Innovation Center had organized for scientists in that Volga region. Just recently I took part in a teleconference put together by the Russian Trade Representative Office in the United States and supported technically by Cisco, where Kendrick introduced a series of innovation solutions originating from Nizhny’s UNN. The participants of the teleconference included government officials and other representatives of the states of California, Maryland, and Minnesota.

Kendrick plays a considerable and unique role in the development of tech-focused entrepreneurship and education in Russia and helps create a friendly climate of mutual trust and fruitful collaboration between the two countries, which is of particular value today, at the current ‘ice age’ in the U.S-Russia bilateral relations.

Christoph Weise, Co-founder, Quadriga Capital:

I know Kendrick White since 1997. He joined at that time the Nizhny Novgorod office of Quadriga Capital Russia headquartered in St. Petersburg. By the way, Vladimir Putin held a seat on the investment committee of that entity for s short period.

Kendrick‘s job was to build a team in Nizhny Novgorod. He was already married at that time to a Russian girl who, I think, was born in Nizhny. When I recall my views about him considering his employment at that time, I remember being most impressed by his boyish charm, uncomplicated manners and his truly never-ending optimism. He was absolutely cheerful about everything: being married to a Russian girl, living in Nizhny which he considered to be a beautiful city, and about the prospects of developing business there.

We have had many discussions about business, life in Russia and the economic and social developments there, and as far as I know and can say, he loves Russia very much.

Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, Harvard Medical School; President, Russian-American Scientists Association (RASA-USA):

I know Kendrick personally. He’s a real enthusiast who has done very much for Lobachevsky UNN, actively promoting university projects federally and internationally. Initiatives he brought to the table have laid the foundation for a nascent innovation interuniversity ecosystem currently being built at the federal level.

The decision to relieve him of his vice rector duties is a shame. What development of a knowledge-based innovation economy in Russia we can talk about when such irresponsible decisions are made!

Louisa Alexandrova, Chairwoman, St. Petersburg Organization of Business Angels not-for-profit partnership:

I view Kendrick White as one of the founding fathers of Russia’s angel investor movement. He was one of the first to support the St. Petersburg Organization of Business Angels; in 2010 and 2011 we pooled efforts to organize a Business Leaders Forum in St. Pete.

I’m grateful to him for his unremitting desire to share experience, his terrific friends and partners, and most importantly, his optimism and faith in a great future for Russia.

Olga Rink, CEO, Interfax-Dun&Bradstreet:

Kendrick White’s contribution to the development of a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in Russia’s regions is very substantial. This is tremendous labor and invaluable experience.

As for Kendrick himself, he said he sincerely hopes that he may be permitted to continue his work in Russia, in spite of these complicated times:

“I am personally convinced that this country can become even far more powerful and wealthy if it can manage to harness its intellectual capital potential from its advanced science discoveries and turn it into commercially viable business ideas… Thus was the major aim of my work at UNN and in Russia over the past 20 years. I hope that this effort will be properly understood.”

The comments above appear to prove it has already. Now it’s UNN’s turn to have its say. We’ll be watching the developments closely.
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