Entrepreneurial university: connecting education, research and innovation in Russia

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By Dr Vladimir Nikiforov
Vice Rector for Research
ITMO University, Russia

From 1990s to mid-2000s, the majority of research centres and universities in Russia faced a challenge of funding science, which was not on the list of priorities for a country struggling to establish its democratic foundation. Amid political and economic uncertainty, the overall manufacturing decline led to the drop in demand for R&D both from state-sponsored agencies and universities. ITMO University with its strong core in technical sciences was no exception, even though it maintained ties with the industry and continued its collaborative projects to the degree possible.

As the situation began to stabilise and the state began to emphasise the need for diversifying the economy away from natural resources, which remain the main source of income in Russia, it also started to channel more funding into R&D and innovation stemming from a variety of research entities, including universities. In 2015, Russia was ranked 12th in the Bloomberg Innovation Index. Between 2010 and 2015, investment by Russian companies into high-tech innovation went up 2.2 times and the amount of innovation-based products produced in Russia went up by 1.5 times, according to Anatoly Aksakov, head of the State Duma Committee on Economic Policy. Yet the state remains by far the biggest investor in R&D with private investment hovering around 5%, according to research by the Higher School of Economics.

Russian universities have traditionally used their tech transfer offices to deal with domestic IP protection and patent filing. Over the past several years they have begun to reassess their innovation and tech transfer opportunities both domestically and internationally, and began to create a system of university spin-outs with the idea of bringing product to market and creating valuable businesses. Some were created strictly to secure grant funding and had little business experience or resources to do more. In many cases there is also strong resistance from professors used to working with theoretical and fundamental science to connecting with business.

The movement got a serious state push with the creation of the 5-100 Russian Academic Excellence Project, where selected participating universities were encouraged to develop such centres as one of the factors contributing to boosting their competitive advantages. For example, Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod launched a successful technology commercialisation centre with an emphasis on proof of concept, and partnered with LG, Bosch and Intel, among other global corporations. St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University’s Center for Industrial Engineering started working with BMW and Rolls Royce.

As ITMO University began to draw its development roadmap, it decided to reassess its philosophy of strict reliance on government funding and to bank on its expertise in technical disciplines and a fruitful environment for innovation and research. It was imperative to find ways to external income and establish mechanism for sustainable research funding in the future.

Numbers speak for themselves. In 2015, the university’s overall R&D budget was RUB 2.28 billion (US$37.67 million), with 29% coming from commissioned research and 12% from research grants. Therefore, over 41% of the total budget came from non-state sources.

The volume of funding has grown more than 20 times over the past ten years, and this growth placed ITMO University in the third place among all Russian universities for research funding in 2015. I attribute the success to several factors, including reliance on the university’s core competencies in IT and photonics, developing a new system of international collaboration, and establishing a strong network of innovations support for start-ups and other commercialisation opportunities.

A synergetic effect came about where education and scientific research were developing at the same time as new directions were arising connected with foresight, entrepreneurship, and social development. I can’t say that this system is totally ready and flawless, but the overall picture looks promising since instructors, researchers, students and graduate students are working together. 5-100 Project (targeted initiative launched by the Russian government in 2013 to get Russian universities better recognised in global rankings) gave ITMO University an extra impulse: this programme helped us have a more clear idea of what we need to do in the next seven years and get to the level of a truly excellent educational institution in the international arena.

I believe that in order to successfully interact with businesses, universities should function like a corporation. The modern model of an entrepreneurial university implies that a scientific and educational centre, just like a successful export-oriented IT company, must have its own development strategy, developed on the basis of a foresight and in-depth market research. Hence it requires the establishment of university departments that are engaged in marketing, analytics and strategic planning. Furthermore, the university, as with businesses, must attract talented, professional and motivated people. ITMO strives to address this requirement on two levels: on the one hand, attracting the most capable students, and on the other, drawing best educators and researchers from all over the world.

International research centres

One of the new directions taken by the university has been developing a system of international research centres (IRCs) headed jointly by accomplished Russian and foreign scientists. This approach allowed the university to tackle large international projects, and participate in collaborative consortiums. I think the new system for international research is our key achievement in 2015. We currently have 40 such centres, which are still growing in number. They are economically independent, and possess cross-disciplinary competence units undertaking leading fundamental and applied research in our key areas of competence.

IRCs actively participate in projects funded by large European grants, such as HORIZON 2020 ICT-30-2015: Internet of Things and Platforms for Connected Smart Objects. Among IRCs’ contributions are photonic high impact terahertz technologies and metamaterials antenna for ultra-high field MRI.

Core competencies applied to new areas

Diversification of research in IT and photonics has led to new projects in areas such as medicine, urban science and art. In medicine, ITMO University collaboratedwith LOMOPLC, a St. Petersburg-basedmanufacturerofoptical devices, on tele-medical equipment for remote diagnostics. Another project in this area was a robotic clinical research complex with nano reactants in collaboration with AlkorBio Group, a manufacturer of diagnostic products. The nano particle theme was expanded in the “Magnetic Liquid Project” where a new nano compound effectively delivers a drug to the clot site, offering new hope for fighting strokes.

In urban science, the software that calculates the best scenarios for opening and closing the St. Petersburg Dam prevented every major flood in the city since 2011. In art, the collection of “optoclones” – optical clones – of the famous Faberge eggs became one of the focal points of the International Year of Light – 2015 in St. Petersburg. The same 3D imaging technology can be applied to medicinal imaging, topographical solutions, and even airport dispatching.

Innovation support

Financial support and the development of innovation projects are carried out as part of a unique mechanism for Russian universities, such as the Future Technologies ITMO accelerator programme for technological start- ups. The programme is aimed at establishing start-ups based on ITMO University’s intellectual property in the areas of smart electronics, robotics, laser technologies and photonics, and alternative energy. The result of the first session of the programme in 2015 was a pool of nine projects ready for commercialisation and further development as small innovative enterprises with participation of the university.

In 2015, the university approved the establishment of ITMO Venture, an investment partnership that will start financing innovations-related projects based on university’s IP in 2016. The university has also developed a service support network for innovative and entrepreneurship activities of its staff and students. The quality of the service infrastructure received international recognition in 2015: accelerator iDealMachine (US$265,000) was ranked third in the world among university business accelerators, while SumIT accelerator (over US$2.8 million) based on ITMO University’s business incubator entered the list of top business incubators ranking by UBI Global for the first time.

ITMO University acts as a ventures investor, managing its own portfolio of projects, companies and intellectual products. The university engages in making ventures investments in promising projects with a high potential of commercialisation.

As part of its roadmap for 2020, ITMO University plans to continue building an entrepreneurial university with diversified financial base, research that meets market needs and a strong system of innovation support.

Our philosophy is to be more than a university; that means we try to be non-classical in everything we do, including realising ideas that few other universities would tackle in education and moving science forward.

Dr Vladimir Nikiforov is vice rector for research at ITMO University, St. Petersburg, Russia. An author of over 120 publications, including six books and 60 articles, he is chairman of the Dissertation Council and editor-in-chief of two journals: Scientific and Technical Journal of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics as well as Control Engineering Russia. He is very active in the academic community as the academic secretary of the St. Petersburg group of the National Committee for Automatic Management of the Russian Academy of Sciences, member of the Technical Committee for the Adaptive Management of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC), and member of the editorial boards of the journals, such as Automatica (IFAC Official Journal). Dr Nikiforov is also an advisor to the director general of LOMO PLC, a St. Petersburg-based optical manufacturer.