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Conveyor of Knowledge and Business Projects

On February 19, 2019, Tomsk students met with Denis Kovalevich, CEO of the TechnoSpark Group of Companies. Each year TechnoSpark, established with the support of the Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs (RUSNANO group), launches dozens of startups focused on innovative development and creation of small production enterprises across Russia.

TechnoSpark’s main clients are growing corporations. For them, buying business models is one of the cheapest and most effective tools for development. More than a hundred initiatives are being developed at the same time. In May last year, TechnoSpark along its with partners announced the large-scale recruitment of young entrepreneurs for whom participation in the program can be a good start for a business career.

“I think this is advantageous. Many young people are interested in launching a startup now, and internships are available. I believe it’s a good way.”

“There are a lot of good ideas, but they cannot be realized because of the lack of money. That’s why startups are necessary.”

“This industry is popular now. I think we have a plenty of ambitious young people.”

Tomsk State University that has become a dialogue platform is planning on investing a million rubles in each of the ten ambitious students annually. At the same time, the university expects contributions to the fund of TSU from future entrepreneurs. There is also an educational part of cooperation which is useful for all parties.

Eduard Galazhinsky, Rector of the National Research Tomsk State University:

“Ten students will be working at real companies for nine months. During this time, each of them will be building a real business. Afterwards, individual training tracks will be developed for these students, and they will have an opportunity to defend their graduation projects based on the launched startups. Or, in other words, on their reflection regarding the startups.

Our guest today is Denis Aleksandrovich Kovalevich, CEO of the TechnoSpark nanotechnology center, Troitsk. Good afternoon.

Good afternoon.

Denis Aleksandrovich, what mission do you have now in Tomsk and why are you meeting with students?

Together with the rector of the university, we have announced a new training program today. This program was developed primarily for those who are going to present their graduation projects next year — for fourth-year undergraduates or second-year postgraduates. This is an opportunity for them to defend their graduation projects based on the launched startups.

Is 2018–2019 Business Debut a next step for students?

It is a next stepping stone. 2018-2019 Business Debut is for graduates who are looking for a job and want to change their profession and run a business. It is some kind of an upgrade or the next step of the program we have announced today.

So at this point, if I understand correctly, you are already selecting startup ideas that students suggest?

We are selecting students. Our business model is that it is TechnoSpark that decides which startup to launch. Over the last seven years that our company exists, we have created 120 technology startups in Troitsk alone. Our group of companies has created 800 startups all over the country. In this regard, we understand what material startups (we work only in material-based and hardware industries) must be created. Whether it is logistic robots or…

A real, tangible product should be delivered in the end.

Certainly. And it should be a material product. Not an Internet product, not a software solution. I mean sensors, genomics, additive technologies, solar energy, microelectronics, etc. At the beginning of the program, the students will be given a verified business hypothesis. They will spend nine months working on this hypothesis which they will need to implement. We will provide them with an investment capital. We are going to invest money in each startup. Each student will have a small salary enough to cover their personal expenses. Accommodation and transportation expenses will be reimbursed by us and the university.

2018-2019 Business Debut takes place in Saransk, Ulyanovsk, Yekaterinburg and Tomsk…

Yes, everywhere where our nanotech centers operate. In other words, the network of venture-building companies of Russia. Or the network of companies that build other companies. The term ‘venture building’ came from international practice. The main word here is ‘building’. The profession we have announced today at the meeting with students is called ‘business builder’. Not business manager. Because first you have to build a business to manage. The work that the entrepreneur is engaged in at the beginning is building. It is like building a house. You start with a sketch, then develop a detailed project, lay the foundation, build the first floor, the second floor and so on… And then you can sell it. It is the same with companies. We carry out a full cycle of technology startups. And we would like to involve final-year students in this process.

How long does it take for a company to mature and be ready for sale?

Usually, in the fields that we work in, a company can be sold after 15 to 20 years. It is a long time. It happens a little faster in the Internet space — 5 to 8 years. In any case, it does not take months or weeks. This is a long period. But we have managed to make it at least 2 times shorter. Our cycle of building one startup takes 6, 7, 8 years. And the students will be with us during the first step — the first nine months. I am talking about an internship that will start in September 2019 and end in May 2020.

Is nine months enough to understand how to work further?

This time is enough to go from point 0 to point 1. And this transition is the most difficult one. Because going from point 1 to point 100 is much easier than going from point 0 to point 1. For this you have to create something from scratch. It takes a lot of effort so that the first seedlings of your actions would bear fruit. And it takes as much effort to create the first engineering solutions, to take the first commercial actions, and to set the first tasks for building your own company. Each business builder is going to face at least these three challenges. This is a light version of entrepreneurship.

What should a student have to make it through this difficult competition and be chosen by TechnoSpark?

First of all, this is not about some subject knowledge but about so-called non-cognitive competences. Say, curiosity. You need to be a curious person to deeply study a technical discipline. It won’t work if you’re not curious. The second thing is persistence. The third one, self-discipline. Students should also have motivation. Self-motivation, to be more exact. When you answer the questions: why are you doing what you’re doing? And what should I do today? And, finally, one of my favorite character traits — it can be described by a term that comes from physics. It is called ‘resiliency’ which is a material’s property not to lose structure when under strong pressure. An entrepreneur or a business builder is a material under pressure that comes from different sources. For example, engineers that need to be paid and instructed on the tasks, or investors who want to make investments, start a business and return the money within a limited period of time. An entrepreneur is constantly under pressure coming from customers who are waiting for their product to be delivered. Tax authorities bring pressure, too. Finally, there is a pressure coming from the family.

It is a multitasking situation.

A multistressful one, I would say. Imagine a crystal under pressure. Any of us would shrink ourselves down under similar circumstances but the most important thing is not to lose the internal core. Not to lose the basic structure of common sense and always be able to answer the question: why am I doing this? This quality is called resiliency. I believe this physics term describes accurately a typical day-to-day routine of an entrepreneur.

You usually talk about engineers in a quite the opposite way. Many companies are willing to hire versatile employees that can perform several tasks. You, on the other hand, have mentioned in several interviews that an engineer should work only in their area of specialization. Why is that?

There is a Ten-Thousand-Hours Rule. You need to spend 10 thousand hours studying to thoroughly understand something. Let us count, what it means to spend 10 thousand hours studying one area of specialization. For some people it takes 5 to 10 years. If you work hard, it can take you 5 years. Or 3 years if you work very hard. For example, Elon Musk says that one has to work more than 80 hours per week to change the world. This is a minimum amount of time that one needs in order to achieve any significant results when working on new technology businesses.

The longer you hit the same point, the bigger is the result, isn’t it?

It is. The depth of knowledge is much more important to me than versatility.

I would also like to talk more about TechnoSpark’s directions of activities. They are quite diverse. Nanotechnology is a rather broad concept. Could you name the directions?

I can tell you what directions of our activities have aroused the greatest interest among the students today. There are about 20 directions in total. It would take long to name them all. Products for the sport industry, for example. It is genetics, on the one hand. Specialized genetics for athletes, for those who is under a lot of stress, and it allows coaches to answer the question about the limit of this stress. Genetics for junior football academies. This is a specialized product. It is primarily intended for parents of football academy students. Or a sensor system, on the other hand. For instance, concussion sensors which every athlete should have. It does not matter whether it is a football player, a volleyball player, or a boxer. Concussion is a common problem for athletes which is hard to diagnose or is diagnosed too late when bad consequences reveal themselves. Or sensors for tracking movements of football players on the field. Or a product that was launched by one of our fairly mature startups — a vanishing spray for football referees. A referee applies vanishing spray before a direct free kick and afterwards it completely disappears within a few minutes.

Is it a one-off product?

No, it is a huge industry. It is a mass product and huge multibillion dollar markets throughout the world.

Hopefully, you’ll find promising and talented young people in Tomsk.

I do hope so, too. On March 5, the first qualifying stage will take place in the form of a business game “Build a company. Sell the company.” During this stage, we are going to select some of the people who will make it to the finale in May.

Thank you and good luck! This was Denis Aleksandrovich Kovalevich, CEO of the TechnoSpark nanotechnology center, Troitsk.

Source: TechnoSpark Media Office
Video: Tomskoye Vremya television program
Date: February 20, 2019