— There are many IT companies working in Tomsk today. Many of them are interested in mutual interaction and the development of their home territory, as well as in various joint projects. At the same time, a sort of succession of generations is taking place. The companies established in nineties are getting less active, while those who started their business in 2000-s are coming to the foreground. How can they interact, how can we retain this interest in changing and direct it to the benefit of the territory?
— These are three different matters. The first is business cooperation aimed at joint resolution of various issues. If the end product of their cooperation is the creation of software products, that is one thing. If the companies are trying to jointly re-equip their facilities – using, among other things some software – that is a totally different thing. In this case, the product is the new digital production with more efficient work process and differentiation of labor. So the main question here is “What are we doing together?”.
A completely different thing is relationships between people. We need club-like structures where common issues are discussed, a place where people talk about life, kids, environment, comfort, their vision, etc. Everybody needs a communication environment and, among other things, thoughtful discussion. This is why the university-based coworking, where my lectures took place in Tomsk, is a very good venue. Both the Institute of Economics and Management of TSU and the organization of space. The place is well equipped, situated in the city centre; it is a place where people want to get together. A club of entrepreneurs is always needed. The local community should have its own agenda. They should develop their view on certain issues, including the matter of priorities. Any distribution of money in the local community – and I am not differentiating between the city community, the regional one, the administration, etc. – always requires prioritization: what should be done first, what next. Who should decide? The residents. The active ones.
The third matter is acceleration of new businesses. Say, I am 60, why would I start a new project? I’d rather see that my son or grandson do that. There is generation-related distribution of strength, energy and interest. If business people are ready to get together and be mentors not to solve their mundane problems or develop their own business, but to create the next generation of entrepreneurs out of the youth, then this is interesting.
In Cambridge, for instance, the owner of such business accelerator is Hermann Hauser and he says a very useful thing: “We don’t pay for mentoring, this is an unpaid job. But when you lead some projects, you as entrepreneurs have the possibility to invest your funds in it; this is the golden share. This is not some ridiculous money, as you are not building physical facilities. If you are helping a new team to get on their feet, if you believe that they have the future you simply invest some minor money, get your interest and, consider this, by doing so, you diversify your entrepreneurial activity.”
I think that Tomsk should transition to innovation conveyor of this kind. Technology company is a product, just like any other product, the same requirements apply. The “pedestrian” approach that used to be earlier, when people would proceed from their individual competence, the school they were coming from, or some market demand, is getting obsolete. Therefore, if you want to achieve some critical mass, you need not 50 start-ups but 50 per year, or better a hundred. Moreover, you have this youth right at hand! By the way, it will immediately change the demand for basic training in universities – everything here is interrelated.
If we implore these experienced people to come to the standard teaching process, deliver some lectures, they will feel a little bored. Although, it will still be happening. But business acceleration is also required – it also has a strong educational component.
For instance, in Belgium they did an interesting thing: they shaped the academic activity based on the stages of business life cycle. When you begin to study, you have nothing, not even an idea. Then you discover an idea, move on to the next stage and proceed through the stages of company establishment implemented at the facility. As you move to the next level, you get different teachers with different experience, a different organization of the process, a different building. This is a very interesting experience.
— Our companies are trying to move in all the three directions simultaneously …
— A clearly defined role is very important. In the corporate sector, there is a notion of conflict of interest. It may also take place in life; we often get in this kind of situations. That is why one must have a very clear understanding of “who” we are, which part of our mind and activity is involved in a given story, project, or cooperation.
So I believe, that if there is the objective of increasing the critical mass of the Tomsk innovation cluster, which means to generate more start-ups per a unit of time - say, per year or five years, - then you have almost everything it takes to do it. You need to create these “boiling points”, places for joint work.
The only thing that matters is that it should not turn into a word-guessing game in which you have guessed all the letters but got the word wrong. During my lectures in Tomsk, there were people in the audience who would skeptically shake heads when I said that one could start a company with € 20 thousand. But it is possible, as long as you strictly adhere to one principle. For instance, we are creating a company right now and there is a condition that the entrepreneur does not get a salary. This is an entrepreneurial project; the person will get a share in a successful business! Otherwise, a conflict of interest happens: personnel pool gets inflated, ridiculously expensive experts appear, exceeding amount of equipment is purchased, patents are made… This is a difficult principle to follow consistently because we are used to a different setup. Even some regulations being made at the federal level are rather pushing people to spend than to save. And when you transfer all of that to the product cost, who would need it for such huge price? Little progress is made and you already have huge costs! And if you don’t sell the company, you simply lose money.
— In that case is it possible to create a start-up studio in Tomsk that you mentioned in your lectures?
— Yes, what I meant while talking about a business accelerator, could be called a start-up studio. It’s just startup studios can be different. Some of them work in the format of start-up weekends, these are rather coworkings. While some of them actually create businesses, in this case they specialize in something.
For instance, in Budapest, there is a start-up studio, whose head recently visited Moscow. They have strict requirements: more ideas, faster launch, something does not fit – discard, move on to a new project. We are a little bit more pensive. We do things slowly. But the market is developing. Today one thing is needed, but six months after somebody has already launched a counterpart as we are just sitting and thinking, and so on.
To tell the truth, the urban environment is equally important here. Notice: if you don’t develop your urban environment, if you don’t make it more comfortable, the young people will move away. They are mentally less bound to places. It is clear that I, who was born in this country, will live here in my old age. But the 40-year-olds are more mobile, 20-year-olds even more so. Ultimately, people want to live in beauty. If we want to create innovation centers, it means the environment should correspond.
— How can it be done?
— Among other things, use modern technology to sole the issue. We have everything in this regard to make a clean, comfortable city filled with new technology solutions. No need to invent things. One simply must find a specific scenario of implementing the thing to fit with a specific demand from the people, to correspond with their priorities and public mentality. There are some of those here, I know it as I have spent quite a while here, my first visit to the Tomsk region was back in 1991, I’m almost an old-timer (smiles).
Speaking of business, if there are no large projects that require cooperation, companies will not do anything together. Either they all part take in a large project, resulting in cooperation, or each of them does something on their own, they have their own markets and cooperations, including ones outside the region.
— Many IT companies nowadays are trying to interact with Tomsk universities and influence the training of specialists.
— I proceed from a very tough idea that I have been talking about for a long time, but it is striking a chord more often nowadays: You can complete a study course, receive the certificate and as a result, you can create a company – only then do you receive your degree certificate. That’s it.
I too meet with students sometimes, but I prefer talking to teachers, it is more efficient. I tell them and later on, they share many of these ideas with the students using the language that is easier for the students to comprehend. The students do not have enough experience to comprehend the things I talk about.
Participating in assembling teams that upon completion of their studies, defend their degree in the form of a start-up and company defence – this is a completely different thing. In the Catholic university of Leuven (I always intentionally tell this in my lectures) they managed to transition to this model over 25 years. They made valorization of knowledge their priority – alongside teaching, research, market demand analysis and ongoing monitoring of competence change. It was made the leading process of the university’s work. To do that, they differentiated the functions of the rector and the person in charge of valorization. They created a technology transfer center and a model that motivates the faculty to do it and become rich and successful in a given activity.
Initially it was met with severe rejection. The faculty were saying: “This is not our job or function, our job is to deliver lectures. Why are you distracting us from the main job!”. Later they discovered that students also study better when they do something.
By the way, Russia is one of the first countries that invented this project-based method for higher education. In the Emperor’s engineering training school, students, their teacher and representatives of a customer would together make various products. That was their examination. Which lectures you attended, what you understood of them, how you remembered it… you recall all that when you work, out of the terror that you need to make the product. Apart from that, the efficiency factor of various verbal methods is 7%. That is provided that you specifically learned to study. Where to they teach that these days? This skill should be developed in kindergarten and at school.
Thus, no doubt, that cooperation with universities is required. But I still suggest a separate platform for cooperation, a place where everybody can contribute to the extent of their capabilities.
And by the way, in the very building of the Institute foe Economics and Management of TSU, where the lectures took place, they can create this platform where groups and projects are shaped and then they can go with their questions one floor higher and say: “We’ve got a problem, can you help us and advise us on how to solve this specific problem?”. And existing entrepreneurs will be mentors for them.