MIT Helps Build the Silicon Valley of Russia

By Phillip Martin

Oct. 10, 2011

BOSTON — Sometime in the next month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will sign a historic agreement that will lead to the creation of a major institute of technology in Russia. The planned university will be the anchor of a $6.6 billion project that aims to establish Russia as a major technological power.
The Skolkovo Foundation was established just a couple of years ago by the Russian Academy of Sciences to advance the country’s scientific and technological future.
Since signing a preliminary agreement this summer with the Foundation, MIT has kept quiet about its plans and its role in what will become the Skolkovo Institute of Technology just outside of Moscow.
But Alexey Sitnikov, the Foundation’s executive director of academic development, made no secret of his goals. The future university “will combine research education and commercialization similar to what MIT does—but better,” he said. Researchers will create inventions, commercialize them and bring them to market “to complete the innovation chain from idea to profit.”
Sitnikov was in town for meetings with MIT officials, to work out the details of creating a world-class technological university.
There’s no doubt Russia has the brainpower—graduating large numbers of mathematicians, scientists and engineers. What it lacks in the post–Cold War era, said Sitnikov, is the kind of openness that spawns innovation. That means, in part, welcoming researchers from all over the world. MIT faculty and SIT faculty will work side-by-side, creating innovation.

Organizers envision Skolkovo as the world's next Silicon Valley. (Google Earth)

“The university we are creating will be international both in the composition of faculty and student body as any international university should be,” Sitnikov said. “We don’t want to be closed. We want to be open.”
Russia says it will relax visa and travel restrictions to make this project work. MIT scientists and other professionals will come and go at will.
The university is the center of a radically new community. Skolkovo Innovation City—like Silicon Valley, on which it is loosely modeled—will house dozens of new startups and old businesses, including Microsoft, Nokia and Cisco Systems. The Skolkovo Institute of Technology will sit at the town’s center, sort of like a library on Main Street, but without the provincial flair. The development is funded by the Russian government in partnership with private companies.
Right now, Skolkovo Innovation City is an empty field, just under 1000 acres, watched over by two security guards.
But by 2017, the Foundation envisions a thriving town of 20,000 to 30,000 people, both residents and commuters from outside the country. It will have clusters of companies and office space. Unlike many Moscow suburbs, it will not be a gated community, Sitnikov said: “It will be an open town using a lot of technologies of today and tomorrow.”
The Silicon Valley of Russia is envisioned as a self-supporting community where cars will run on electricity, not gasoline, with power generated by the sun. Science and money will come together seamlessly.
The Foundation thinks that vision will appeal to entrepreneurs around the world. “Many of our key partners are American-based companies,” Sitnikov said.
Dr. Phil Frost is chairman of the board of the world’s largest generic pharmaceutical firm, based in Israel, and chairs Skolkovo’s International Scientific Advisory Board. He saw big opportunities for a Silicon Valley in Russia.
“I think there is great interest in developing an entrepreneurial base in Russia, not only for the medical sciences but for the whole broad spectrum of sciences and the practical applications thereof,” Frost said.
His own companies, including Teva and OPKO Health, plan to set up offices in Skolkovo Innovation City. He says MIT’s signoff on the project will convince many scientists and entrepreneurs to set up shop in Russia—which has not always been considered the most secure place to do business.
MIT has a long history of success in creating technologies that transfer to the commercial market, Frost said—and the royalties to prove it. “It’s a good role model and its experience can be brought to bear to help with structural efforts that are being tried in Russia.”
And though MIT is a practical model for Skolkovo’s anchor university, the true inspiration is the broader American spirit of innovation evidenced by Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128, Sitnikov said: “We have the money to fund this effort but we lack the experience. We lack the eyes of the venture capitalists to determine which will be the next Google.”
He’s hoping it will rise from a now barren field outside of Moscow –the future Skolkovo Innovation City.

The Skolkovo Foundation and MIT are expected to reach a final agreement on the creation of Russia’s premier technological university within the next month.


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