As part of a nationwide innovation push, Russia is trying to create a favorable environment for commercializing cutting-edge academic research at universities. But that’s easier said than done, say technology insiders.

Students at an innovative classroom which is designed specifically for intensive forms of studying at innovationStudio Lab at the Faculty of Economics of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Pictured on the background: Alexey Nikolaev, program manager for development of innovation and entrepreneurship, Intel Russia. Photo: innovationStudio Lab

With a black 3D printer, desk-size milling machine, several models of human hands hanging on a rope and a pile of silicon swimming gloves for training, a classroom at innovationStudio Lab at the Faculty of Economics of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) doesn’t look like a typical one. In reality, it resembles a creative laboratory, which brings together not only projects proposed by scholars but also helps them find a good balance between supply and demand, which is essential for commercializing their future products.

“The Factory of New Products,” a caption reads at one of the doors of innovationStudio, which was launched by the MSU Faculty of Economics and Intel in 2007.

The innovationStudio Lab could be a necessary and effective model for Russian technology transfer centers (TTCs), which aim at establishing links between academics, industry and entrepreneurs. They also help scholars to commercialize their projects, get patents and licenses for their inventions.

In fact, innovationStudio is a sort of product realization laboratory, which helps create or find a demand of a product at an early stage of its development by testing its commercialization capability and business model, said Dr. Georgy Laptev, the head of the innovationStudio Lab.

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In other words, it could be a moderator during the first stage of testing an innovative idea, product concept and business model development, a crucial first step (the so-called “fuzzy front end of innovation”) for its further development and commercialization.

How technology transfer works in practice

Laptev himself knows all the ins and outs of how university technology transfer centers work, thanks to his experience at the University of Alberta, where he studied the Canadian experience.

“The idea of technology transfer centers came from the United States,” he told Russia Direct. “And such centers have two major goals: first, releasing patents and licensing objects of intellectual property created by a university with government money; and, second, commercializing a new technology through licensing or creating a new company, a startup.”

If the experienced managers of TTC find it more effective to commercialize through creating a company, a university can help the creators of the invention launch a startup and attract investors. Thus, TTCs could bring together three major innovation players into one chain: a university, an inventor (or scholar) and an entrepreneur.

Finding investors who might be interested in the startup is also among the goals of technology transfer centers,” Laptev clarified. “Afterward, a university releases a license for this startup and gives the green light to a new business.”

Bringing together competencies, from management to logistics

However, the first stage of working of a transfer technology center is rather informal, says Laptev. When an inventor comes to a university’s technology transfer center, he/she discloses the details of his/her invention and its commercialization potential. Then TTC managers, whom Laptev describes as all-round, “intellectual bigwigs” with several degrees in business and other fields, give a professional assessment of the offered invention depending on their specialization (biotech, IT, nanotechnology, etc.).

“These people are supposed to know all the ins and outs of their subject field, all the trends to give a qualified and rather informal assessments. They know what happens in their field and what scholars do,”  Laptev said. “In addition, they have links, direct contacts with business area to offer an inventor’s idea to existing companies or launch new business (startup). In fact, they are like mediators between academics and entrepreneurs, but these mediators are high-profile, because they can translate the sophisticated ideas of academics into the language that business people understand.”

Thus, TTCs deal with management and, most importantly, logistics, finding all necessary infrastructure, equipment and specialists.

Creating transfer technology centers in Russia

There have been numerous attempts to create technology transfer centers in Russian universities since 2000. By 2016, such centers are expected to appear in those universities participating in Russia’s federal program “5-100,” aiming at increasing the competitive capability of the nation’s universities, which struggle to commercialize their ideas and establish close links with local and global businesses.

Dr. Georgy Laptev, left, at innovationStudio Lab at the Faculty of Economics of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU). Photo: innovationStudio Lab

Currently, Ural Federal University cooperates with Siemens, the German multinational engineering company, and Boeing, an American multinational, one of the biggest aircraft producers. Likewise, Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod University has a partnership with other well-known multinationals, including Intel (the United States), Bosch (Germany) and LG (South Korea). St. Petersburg Polytechnic University’s center for Industrial Engineering works with famous car manufacturers BMW (Germany) and Rolls Royce (the United Kingdom).

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MSU created a company, Innopraktika (literally, “Innovation Practice”), whose mission is to establish links between the science and business, and support technology and knowledge transfer for Russian business. The partners of Innopraktika are the largest Russian companies such as Rosneft, Rosatom, Sibur, Transneft, Rostelecom and RVC.

Why technology transfer centers are vital for young innovators

Technology transfer centers could help to come up with a clear perception of the supply-and-demand requirements in a certain field and, most importantly, speed up the implementation of an idea. Here is an example, which clearly illustrates why technology transfer centers could be vital for young innovators.

A graduate of the master’s degree program “Innovation Management” of the MSU Faculty of Economics, Lev Gorilovskiy, came up with an interesting solution that might be interesting for Russian energy companies like Gazprom, Mosgaz and other companies that deal with problems involving pipelines and underground telecommunications cables.

His invention is rather down-to-earth and specific. More specifically, it deals with identification of subterranean non-metal objects in the city (including special polymeric pipelines and cables) and deciphering their sophisticated underground networks.

He plans to do it through a special palm-sized detector with an individual identification number and a special device, attached to an underground object.  The detector is expected to transmit signals from underground to computers and helps to decipher subterranean networks.

According to Gorilovskiy, such efficient and fast object identification may increase efficiency and safety of energy companies and prevent them from unnecessary expenses (that result from wrong identification, a flaw that is common for regular metal detectors).

While Gorilovskiy presented his project before investors and attracted interest at some Russian energy companies, one of the major challenges he faced is the lack of necessary technological platforms and equipment within the university. This is exactly the problem, which an efficient technology transfer center could resolve. So, he had to find his own platforms at different companies to test his ideas.

“If MSU had such an on-campus technological platform and equipment, he could implement his ideas much faster and efficiently here,” said Laptev.

Warnings against obsessive commercialization

Despite the fact that many Russian universities have established TTCs, there are a lot of challenges to master. Among them is the perennial lack of funding to maintain them and provide these centers with all necessary equipment and qualified personnel.

“Not only the lack of funding is the problem, but also qualified personnel as well as the perception of risk taking,” adds Laptev.

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In addition, in some cases Russian universities view the transfer technology centers, primarily, as the source of big profits through commercialization, according to Laptev.

“But if you look at the experience of the biggest American research universities — MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and University of California-Berkeley, you can find out that tech transfer brings relatively little money: maybe, a few percent of a university’s R&D budget,” Laptev said.

The other challenge is that Russian universities have problems in creating necessary innovative and inter-disciplinary infrastructure within the university, which would effectively bring together managerial, academic and technological platforms, including also a creative one.

“We do have working technology transfer centers, but I wouldn’t dare to call them successful from the point of view of the global practice, and we should think globally, not locally, in this context.”

And this is where the third problem of Russian universities comes from: Russian universities should be courageous enough to think and compete globally from the point of view of innovation and technologies.