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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Regional innovation clusters: the art of knowing one’s strengths and interacting with neighbors


In assessing Russia’s regional innovation potential I can point out some developments which show that the regions are starting to really differentiate themselves.

For example, Nizhny Novgorod is developing its own concept of innovation cluster here with the advancement of techno-parks such as Sarov and Ankudinovka, its incubators, Lobachevsky University, etc. This region is really beginning to develop its own strategy.

I can say that Penza has also developed a terrific approach towards commercialization of early-stage technologies. They’ve built, I believe, two very strong techno-parks; one is fully operational and the other is coming on-line a bit later. And there are perhaps seven different incubators in the Penza region which are now operational. I can see that the administration has developed a focused approach to developing an innovation cluster system in Penza. Historically, Penza was a very strong region in systems integration and developing a lot of key technologies that might have been synthesized from other regions of Russia and then brought into the Penza region to create end products. So, Penza is now strategizing to take advantage of its historical roots and strengths in that area. I would be looking out for Penza over the next three years to really emerge as one of the key systems integration and manufacturing innovation clusters.

From my perspective, another highly attractive innovation cluster is being formed in the Kaluga region, and specifically I may point to the city of Obninsk where a pharmaceutical and biotechnology cluster is quickly emerging with tens of millions of dollars of investment coming from Western pharmaceutical giants and into the Obninsk area. Local companies such as Medbiopharm and others are actively working to develop that region as a biotech cluster.

I think the development of these differentiated innovation clusters is a very positive signal for Russia because historically you don’t want to just grow each cluster in an identical way. Each region has its own history; each region has its own education and geography and culture. Therefore each region in Russia should be developing its own strategy and prioritization of infrastructure investments. Some regions have significantly more scientific potential than others; other regions have very solid manufacturing background; others are very strong in R&D.

In beginning to assess the innovation potential of different regions I would begin to look at them in a broader context. Not just how many projects they are producing which are classified as innovation-driven—but what the strategy of the governor of a region is in differentiating his region from other regions, and how the administration is initiating contact on a horizontal level from one region to another. Because clearly there’re technologies being developed in Nizhny Novgorod which could use the strengths of partners from Tomsk Polytechnic University, for example, or Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk.

The world is both horizontal and vertical. And what about Russia?

If you look at the innovation cluster system in the United States, you’ll see that there’re certainly vertical relationships between the Washington-based government departments (Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Science), which are pouring about $50bn worth of annual subsidies into fundamental science and R&D around the country, and regional university centers. But simultaneously, there’re horizontal efforts for different regional universities to collaborate between themselves. That system is very strong in the United States, in the UK, in Japan, and in many countries in the European Union.

The vertical relationships already have existed for decades in Russia; this is a very vertical, top-down driven system. But what I’ve seen emerge over the last three years is the development of horizontal relationships between universities from completely different regions—especially as they tackle versatile hi-tech problems which require different scientific disciplines, ranging from mathematics to cybernetics, to nanotechnology and IT. As the global level problems show themselves to be quite complex, Russian university and R&D teams need to actively accelerate their relations with other teams across the country that could collaborate to help create real products. And I see this development happening.

Reaching out to one another

I attended a Seliger event recently doing a master-class with students. I was there at the invitation of the Hi-tech Techno-park Association of Russia which brings together 19 techno-parks across the country. Absolutely fantastic event! I met a lot of different directors and administrators from different techno-parks and I can say there was a very high-level dialog between people from completely different regions who have not previously really interacted together on a horizontal level. We all talked about common problems and how we might collaborate to overcome administrative and financial barriers in order to really reach the process where we can commercialize technologies.

So from my standpoint, I’m very optimistic that Russia’s starting to develop these horizontal relationships between regions and between individual R&D centers and techno-parks and incubators within these regions. It’s great to see that the top-down sort of stimulation through vertical budget relationships is now being matched with horizontal work between scientific teams. And that’s a very good signal that shows me that the basis of Russia’s innovation economy is finally beginning to take root.

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