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The Skolkovo Innovation Centre hosted its annual Startup Village this week, a two-day celebration of Russia’s new tech and innovation community that's being built from scratch on the outskirts of Moscow.
It was the culmination of a startup competition involving young entrepreneurs from 27 cities, with the ultimate winner taking home a 900,000 ruble investment.
The organisers put on a vibrant, welcoming event and I was impressed by enthusiasm on display from the young attendees even if some of the pitches were somewhat underwhelming.
The Startup Village had a typically techy ambience, with brightly coloured flags, beanbags, table tennis and quirky statues the order of the day.
It was a scene unlike any other I experienced during my brief stay in Moscow, though the dynamic, youthful atmosphere was broken momentarily on Tuesday when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a brief appearance with a discreet yet unnerving army of undercover police.
His short speech reiterating his support for the project drew one of the largest crowds of the event, and the juxtaposition of one of Russia’s most powerful politicians appearing on stage closely followed by an under-rehearsed startup pitch symbolised the strange coalition that underpins Skolkovo’s existence.
While tech communities have sprung up organically in many cities around the world (admittedly they do often receive government support, including London’s Silicon Roundabout), the Skolkovo Foundation was established to artificially create one in an otherwise non-descript area to the southwest of Moscow.
Welcome to the Startup Village!
So although the event celebrated innovation and disruptive thinking, it was hard to look past the fact that the Startup Village was situated in the middle of a massive, state-backed construction project that has been dogged by allegations of corruption.
Other than the Hypercube the Skolkovo Innovation Centre is still a building site, although if it looks anything like the plans when it’s done then it will be a hugely impressive mini-city.
Work began on the $15bn project in 2010 and is due to be complete by 2018, though it won’t be fully operational until 2030.
According to a report in The Moscow Times, it’s hoped that by then the innovation hub will be contributing as much as 1.5 trillion rubles to the country’s economy.
The aim is to create startup clusters focusing on biomedicine, energy, IT, nuclear, space technologies and communications, as well as establishing a home for global corporates to house their R&D centres.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Foundation has also established the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) which it hopes will one day join the ranks of the world’s top universities.
These are certainly lofty goals and the initiative’s success relies on people being suitably won over by the project to actually want to locate themselves in Skolkovo.
As one would expect, startups and major corporations alike have been won over by the offer of financial incentives and tax breaks, with the likes of IBM, Intel, Cisco, Siemens and Boeing already signed up as partners.
Their proposed R&D sites will also give them direct access to Skolkovo’s finest graduates and startups, which could be a very fruitful hunting ground if the project retains the energy and enthusiasm seen at the Startup Village.
Ultimately though it all rests on whether the building works are completed on time and without any further scandals. A trip to the top of the Hypercube revealed just how much work is still to be done to turn the fields of Skolkovo into a global hub for education, entrepreneurship and corporate R&D.
Money won’t be an issue, but do the authorities have the necessary patience and commitment to see the project through to fruition?
It would be a great shame if the promise of Skolkovo turned out to be a white elephant as its focus on innovation and global partnerships could have a wider impact on Russian society as well as its economy.
Call me a cynic, but I’m hoping that Roman Abramovich’s recently completed golf course overlooking the Skolkovo site provides a strong clue as to the project’s long-term future.