For all its technical prowess — the first satellite launch, the first supersonic passenger jet, the creation of the light-emitting diode, to name just a few — Russia has never produced a Microsoft, an IBM or a Google. The country is trying to change that.
The Russians are looking at Silicon Valley as a model, and building what they hope will be a thriving entrepreneurial community in Moscow. But unlike Silicon Valley, Russia is taking a top-down, centralized approach. Over the next three years, a public-private partnership, which includes the Russian government and major international tech firms, will build Skolkovo, formally the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. Skolkovo is meant to be a science park and university that will spawn entrepreneurs who will drive Russia’s economy forward.
Never mind that suburban Moscow can’t match Silicon Valley’s weather; Skolkovo might end up being more MIT than Silicon Valley anyways. That’s because MIT is collaborating on the creation of the SKolkovo. It’s run by a Russian-speaking MIT professor, Edward Crawley. This week, MIT sent its first student delegation to Skolkovo, a precursor to what is intended to be an exchange program between the two institutes when Skolkovo accepts its first students in 2014.
MIT wouldn’t be a bad model – the university’s graduates and faculty have churned out scores of startups in information technology, biotech, nanotechnology and robotics, some of which, like Bose Corp. and Analog Devices, have become billion-dollar companies.
The Russian government paper Rossiyskaya Gazeta wrote that Russia hopes Skolkovo will jumpstart research and development in the country, mired at about one percent of gross domestic product. U.S. firms spend about 2.7 percent of GDP on research. Some overseas interest is already emerging — Siemens, Ericsson and Nokia have already formed research centers within the fledgling institute.
Many countries and cities have tried to clone Silicon Valley and failed. Russian-style central planning would seem the last way to make it happen, something Russian president Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged in 2010, saying that the government will try to provide infrastructure but otherwise stay out of the way.
Timofei Shatskikh, an analyst at Russian consultancy RosBusinessConsulting, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that “Until the first project is implemented, in the minds of most Russians, not to mention domestic investors, it will remain just another ambitious government idea. People don’t see Skolkovo as a scientific institution, but rather as a political one aimed at projecting a positive image.”
Russia is the R in BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China), the acronym for developing countries that are redefining the global economy. Does its effort to create its own Silicon Valley sound promising, or threatening?