Behind Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow there is a small door embedded in the Kremlin Wall where Soviet rulers used to duck through on their way to presiding over the annual May Day Parade.
The door is small and, according to a Russian soldier I met there a decade ago, it was deliberately so because of Stalin’s diminutive stature.
After all, if he was about to acknowledge the size of his huge army, the last thing he needed was to be reminded of was his lack of height.
Rather like Stalin’s door, the, er, window of opportunity for Russian entrepreneurs has been similarly narrow. Inventors and creators were employed by the State and any resulting IP or patents would be owned by the State.
Such a system stifled and stymied innovation so while Russia fiddled, the rest of the world burned with creativity leaving the world’s largest country with a lot of ground to make up.
Fortunately for Russia it is now taking steps and making great strides in doing so. Impending legislation that empowers inventors and grants them patents for their IP are expected to become law in 2013 and a State-sponsored initiative called the Skolkovo Foundation is providing investment and support.
The mission for the Foundation is to change the perception of Russia as a country that produces oil and gas to one that is VC-friendly, one that attracts foreign tech investment and one that supports hundreds of homespun start-ups.
It has a job on its hands. The perception of Russia is not only that of a mineral-producing country, but one that is corrupt and dangerous, as well as being unfriendly to investors and State-controlled.
Fortunately, this perception is becoming as hackneyed as the Soviet state that collapsed during the 1990s.
Arman Gukaysan is the CEO of Moscow-based 3D technology company Vizerra, a Russian start-up that has flourished with the support of Skolkovo.
He believes that Russia can produce real changes in the innovation sphere that has appeared in last couple of years with help of institutions such as the Skolkovo Management School, the Skolkovo Foundation and Digital October.
Vizerra is trying to revolutionise complex industries such as construction and engineering urban planning and has created a cloud-based collaboration software platform for architects, engineers and designers to build 3D models in real time.
It recently released its disruptive product Revizto at the Autodesk University Show in Las Vegas, a Cloud collaboration tool that allows everybody working on a construction project to access all parts of the operation.
Its clients include the Town Planning Committee in Barcelona, and the Organising Committee of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
According to Vizerra’s Gukaysan:
We are seeing dramatic changes in Russia and this is having a profoundly positive effect on the younger generation. Nobody cares about the Cold War any longer, and like everybody else, we just want to be part of a global market and we want even more success stories start-ups..
While much a more established company than other companies in Moscow, Vizerra is now one of more than 800 start-ups operating within Skolkovo in Moscow. The Foundation is backing the upcoming changes in IP law and in 2013, more than 20 of its companies have already created 131 new IP products.
But it’s not just about supporting start-ups. Blue-chip corporations such as Cisco, IBM, Siemens and Russian oil giant Rosneft have all invested in Skolkovo and they were recently joined in December by Samsung who signed an agreement to set up a R&D centre in Moscow.
Conor Lenihan is the VP External Economic Relations for Skolkovo and previously served in several government ministries in Ireland, most recently as a Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation until March, 2011. He is convinced that Skolkovo is doing great things for Moscow, and for Russia.
This is probably the biggest R&D project in the world and we are creating a VC-friendly environment that positions Moscow as the place for foreign companies to invest and a legacy for Russian kids so they become entrepreneurs and stay in Russia, not seek their fortune elsewhere.
It appears that the efforts of Skolkovo are beginning to transform Russia and it may be time to return to that door in the Kremlin Wall.. Stalin’s days are now long over and the small shadow that he used to cast is being eclipsed by a bigger and more confident Russia.
Perhaps it’s time to knock some bricks out of the Kremlin Wall and make that entrance a little larger.