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Friday, August 20, 2010

Regional innovation clusters and a role universities can play (part 2)

Prof. Fyaxel goes on describing what he believes an innovation economy is like and what National Research Universities can do to promote it.

Universities went to a Factory

When I was in Helsinki, a simple thing astonished me. To create an efficient innovation cluster they combined into one three universities, apparently very different from each other. These were the Helsinki School of Economics, Helsinki University of Technology and University of Art and Design Helsinki with as many as an amassed 30,000 students. Why? They did that to establish a Design Factory.

The new factory is a small, 3,000 sq. m building where a kind of ‘broth’ we talked about earlier has been ‘cooked.’ There are machining and woodworking shops there; design studios; economists and market specialists work there too. A product evolves alongside market studies, with a prototype and promotion strategies to complete the picture.

Large companies pay exorbitant rent for office space in the facility, funding the needs of the Design Factory. What are they after? Staff they select right there, and products made by students. The factory is a habitat; students have all they need to stay there overnight.

Merging three universities is a pretty complex endeavor, but the Finns didn’t hesitate in order to set up an innovation cluster. This is an example of what our close neighbors do for their future.

Fourteen + Fifteen

Now it’s time to talk about the concept of National Research Universities (NRU). Those are higher educational establishments equally good at teaching and doing scientific research. An NRU is a form of a cluster based on integration of science and education. There’s a plenty of examples, of which Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are probably the most well-known.

The RF selected in 2009 its first twelve NRUs on a tender basis and two more based on some unknown criteria. Another fifteen have joined this year, all lining up for government funds. But in my opinion, before the line grows the RF needs to grow the original fourteen to a level of true NRUs.

Education and science are inseparable—this is what differentiates them from any other university. The two sides are interwoven and support each other. In the USSR, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MPhTI) was a classical example. A powerful school of physics was created, which is still employed in many foreign countries.

What are the goals and objectives of an NRU? The main one is the creation of a viable innovation environment and a technology transfer vehicle around the university. I talk about innovative SMEs, spin-off companies, techno-parks, technological entrepreneurship support funds for students, etc.

An HSE model: an NRU as a cluster nucleus

The Higher School of Economics is the only humanitarian NRU of the original fourteen. Its campuses are located in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg and Perm.

Historically, each campus has developed its own ‘driver’, a focal point of research. In Nizhny Novgorod it is entrepreneurship and business computing. And it is Nizhny that has been developing and putting into use the idea of an innovation cluster with a local NRU as its nucleus.

The model calls for the spawning around the NRU of a whole system of components that complement and support one another. Those include support infrastructure, which is a techno-park, a business incubator, a technology transfer center, a business angel association and a mechanism of innovation project promotion. They also include a personnel training system provided by a university and a coaching center. We further talk about a financial system with sources of seed and venture capital as well as investment funds and consultancies. We talk about markets, both remote and local, and suppliers of equipment, materials and tools. And finally, we can’t leave out a supporting social climate and a quality of life system that include a broad variety of notions from norms, values, families and competitors to access to culture, entertainment and housing.

Nizhny pushes the HSE model

What is available at the Nizhny Novgorod HSE campus today, and what is being created?

Support infrastructure is being put together, which is a business incubator. The Venture Management Department here already has a mini-incubator of its own; up to 20 projects are resident there. We now want to expand it to be able to work with both HSE students and talented youth from outside.

We go further: an information component. We’re launching a Web-based journal, Innovation System Management. I hope the journal will be a venue for the readership to come in contact with something really new and commercially viable rather than a place for scientists to do self-promotion.

A research component. We have a research and training lab; in future we would like to set up an entrepreneurship center or a think-tank doing research in innovation systems.

Training of personnel. We are now working to create a faculty that will be completely different from what the HSE or any other university has ever had. It will foster master’s programs exclusively; and all those syllabi will focus on innovation. We have already developed the Innovation Management and Marketing & Innovation Promotion programs, with the Entrepreneurship in Technology curriculum coming soon. The faculty will train a cadre of entrepreneurs specifically for Russia’s emerging innovation economy.

On top of that it’s our student’s club, The Entrepreneur. It currently brings together 100 in-house members and about 700 online participants who want to become entrepreneurs. We build teams, share experiences, assist them in promoting their projects and provide overall guidance.
In a similar club in Finland there are 5,000 members. So we have a long way to go but the vista is promising, and we know that increasing numbers will cause qualitative change.

We preach and employ project-focused training techniques. Students form interdisciplinary teams to develop and realize innovation projects. The key principle behind the techniques is a Living Case approach to coaching managers; students have to develop solutions to actual problems that real companies face. What adds value to the approach is that team members, acting as consultants, present their solutions before the top managers of those companies.

An entrepreneurial component includes spin-off companies. There is one already; students are setting it up and we help them achieve a certain level. We’re eyeing many companies like that and have begun approaching other NRUs in the hope of establishing joint spin-offs. We are not a technological university, but we are ready to collaborate in commercializing technological projects.

And finally, a financial component, which is the establishment of a seed fund and a grant financing system.

In focus: Centers for Entrepreneurship and grant funds

I have talked about what we have created; now it’s about what needs to be created. To make sure NRU-based research turns into an innovation product a Center for Entrepreneurship must be set up within an NRU. It is crucial, and the HSE NN has come up with the concept which Moscow has approved.

What should be the focus for such a Center? First and foremost, it is seed investing and pairing up business trainers, or mentors, and innovators. The Center should also supervise IP issues and encourage staff to continue research by assisting them in project commercialization as a consultancy. The student body of innovators will clearly see a path to commercialization—this is the overall objective.

What else needs to be set up? Funds. Those aren’t venture funds; they provide grant financing. What I envision differs profoundly from the Bortnik Fund or any other fund existing today. The funds I believe Russia needs must not only give money but also give a hand in project commercialization.

Three keys to innovation

Making a long story short… What are the key elements of a doable innovation commercialization model? There are three of them.

An entrepreneurial team must be formed, and a mentor must be given to the team to ensure project monetization. In Nizhny Novgorod this works already. Our students are aided by experts; there is a regional business angel association, Start Invest. We believe that reinforcing a student’s team with a business angel or a mentor will properly channel the development of an idea and momentum won’t be lost.

Element 2 is the establishment of seed grant funds that make money available to university staff on a tender basis.

Element 3 is training of students and postgraduate students in entrepreneurship. These should be the audiences. Not those notorious coaching programs that move from city to city and ‘teach’ entrepreneurial skills to scientists—they sometimes just make no sense. A scientist must do science, and he wants to do that. But if you want to have effective innovation managers for the future, you need to train young people.

These are the three elements that I believe create in a National Research University a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

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