Viktor Vekselberg reported to the President on the Fund’s work in 2010, described the ways in which the Fund selects innovation projects it will support in the future, and spoke about cooperation with universities and research organisations across Russia.
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President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Well, Mr Vekselberg, how are things in Skolkovo?
President of the Skolkovo Foundation Viktor Vekselberg: They are going well, I believe.
I just wanted to tell you, Mr President, that tomorrow we are going to hold another regular meeting of the Foundation’s Council, which will assess the Foundation’s performance last year and approve plans for this year.
I would like to note that although the Foundation worked only for six months last year, we have actually managed to launch the Skolkovo Innovation Centre. We have already considered a significant number of applications we had received, and 28 companies have obtained the status of the Foundation’s participants.
Dmitry Medvedev: So you have 28 residents at present?
Viktor Vekselberg: That’s right, 28 residents. 28 companies, 11 of which have received the Foundation’s grants; the rest did not require financial support from us.
Dmitry Medvedev: Not everybody knows what the Foundation's grants are.
Viktor Vekselberg: It's money.
Dmitry Medvedev: How much money?
Viktor Vekselberg: Over 3 billion rubles [over $100 million] have been allocated for these projects. 3.2 billion, to be precise.
Dmitry Medvedev: How much does the average participant receive?
Viktor Vekselberg: The projects are very different and a great deal depends on the stage of the project’s implementation. If we look at startups, there’s not that much money…
Dmitry Medvedev: I am just curious, what is the minimum contribution to a startup of a new project?
Viktor Vekselberg: The projects that…
Dmitry Medvedev: Of the projects you have already considered.
”It is even more important that the actual people who will work on the projects move there; that is the end goal and not for the executives to have their own offices, although that is certainly necessary as well.“
Viktor Vekselberg: It’s $600,000 for the whole project. These projects are expensive. That is because each project requires fairly expensive research requiring purchase of supplies and components. There is a number of projects where special equipment has to be purchased, and in those cases they can become quite expensive.
I believe we have already organised an efficient system for the experts’ work: we have set up expert panels in all five areas. These are mainly independent experts, and what I think is a major advantage is that the decisions are made without personal contact with the applicants.
Dmitry Medvedev: How do those expert panels work? You say that they are mostly made up of independent experts. I don’t really understand what an independent expert means since, in my opinion, an expert must always be independent.
Viktor Vekselberg: I mean they are not the Foundation’s employees but simply people who were either selected on the basis of our scientific advisory board’s recommendations, or suggested by our partners at universities and other educational institutions.
The system works as follows. We receive an application, then ten experts are chosen randomly for each project, who assess it using a special system and say…
Dmitry Medvedev: And of course the experts don’t know each other?
Viktor Vekselberg: No, they don’t. They use a special procedure to assign the project a rating. In essence, it’s a yes/no assessment, i.e. either the project satisfies certain requirements or not. It is not a matter of allocating money; the only thing that’s important is that the panel adheres to this procedure. This is how the system works.
I am pleased to note that the first members of the Foundation, or rather, the companies that have obtained the status of Foundation participants, expressed genuine surprise that they did not have to meet with anyone in person and prove the merits and feasibility of their projects. Therefore, we have eliminated any subjective factors from the selection process.
Dmitry Medvedev: You mean they can turn a project down during a personal meeting as well as without ever meeting the applicant.
Viktor Vekselberg: Well, they can certainly turn a project down without a meeting but as a rule, all the difficulties arise during personal discussions of such issues.
Apart from launching the selection and financing procedures, we have made good progress with the actual construction. We held a tender to select a company that would present architectural designs. Over 20 companies took part and in the end we selected two. They have submitted their design concepts to the Advisory Council and tomorrow the Foundation Council will make the final decision and choose one of these companies.
Dmitry Medvedev: Are they Russian or foreign companies?
Viktor Vekselberg: We had both, but the two companies that were recognised as the best are foreign: one of them is French and the other Dutch. Each of them already has some experience or operating in Russia, and the projects will involve the participation of Russian …
Dmitry Medvedev: …sub-contractors.
Viktor Vekselberg: Absolutely. But I am referring to architects, too.
”I would just like the Foundation to have a vision of how it will develop in other regions, and what is the fate of the projects to be undertaken in cooperation with other regional innovation centres?“
This year we plan to begin the construction of the entire infrastructure and to build the first office building by the end of the year. We already have the approved design for it, and hopefully in November the entire administration will move to Skolkovo, so there will be a direct connection with it.
Dmitry Medvedev: I am pleased that the administration will move to Skolkovo, but it is even more important that the actual people who will work on the projects move there; that is the end goal and not for the executives to have their own offices, although that is certainly necessary as well.
I have a question that my colleagues often ask, mostly the governors but others as well. It has to do with Skolkovo’s place in the existing system of innovation development of our country. People often say, it is all very well what you are creating, but is it going to be the only place? Didn’t we create anything in the past? Didn’t we have excellent science hubs? I would just like the Foundation to have a vision of how it will develop in other regions, and what is the fate of the projects to be undertaken in cooperation with other regional innovation centres?
Viktor Vekselberg: First, I would like to emphasise that among the projects we have selected about half were submitted by companies from the regions. The current legislation allows us to support companies that are not currently based in Skolkovo. They include companies from the Urals, from the Moscow Region and other parts of Russia. Therefore, Moscow companies don’t get any preferential treatment.
Secondly, of course, the Foundation does not see itself as an opponent of existing institutions, whether research or educational, but as an additional substantially new element, which should promote and speed up the transfer of ideas and technologies from the educational and economic sectors to business. That is our mission and we declare it openly, realising the ways in which we will tackle it and it is absolutely clear to us that this can be tackled only in cooperation and partnership with the best of the already existing institutions.
Dmitry Medvedev: Are we going to establish branches or are there no such plans so far?
Viktor Vekselberg: We have signed agreements with 16 universities. Two days ago we signed a partnership and cooperation agreement with 18 Russian Academy of Sciences institutes, most of which are based in the regions, even as far away as in Vladivostok. As for setting up branches, it is still an open question because to date the law does not stipulate the existence of legal entities in other places that would have preferences we have been granted. Although I think that this is not the only issue that still needs adjustment and refinement. In general, we treated Skolkovo as a pilot project…
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course.
Viktor Vekselberg: … that would develop the rules and mechanisms that could later be extended nationwide.
Dmitry Medvedev: Do you think the law is functioning properly, or do you have a feeling that some things are to be corrected?
Viktor Vekselberg: I think there are certain aspects that require some clarification and amendment. We plan to submit proposals to the Government on the issues that require elaboration, by the end of the year.
Dmitry Medvedev: Please do, because the law must be a living and functioning document.
Viktor Vekselberg: Yes, of course.
I would like to mention a major issue associated with the creation of a university as part of this project. We are currently at the final stage of negotiating with MIT an agreement which will define our partnership on this project. These negotiations have been difficult, but I hope they will be successfully completed in the near future. I believe we made the right decision when we chose MIT for our model because objectively speaking it is one of the most successful international examples to date of establishing this kind of research and educational centres.
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course, MIT is a highly reputable institution. As I understand it, you need to establish partnership relations between the Foundation and the Skolkovo business school.
Viktor Vekselberg: That’s right.
Dmitry Medvedev: Because after all both will be located in the same place.
Viktor Vekselberg: And technology transfer requires the involvement of business professionals.