Skolkovo in June 2014

When three years ago, in 2011, I came to see Skolkovo, the construction of the future innovation city had just begun. Finding a way to the complex of buildings arranged in the form of a Malevich painting was quite a challenge: there were construction workers everywhere, trenches, mountains of sand, dusty roads...

Today I visited the Startup Village event and found myself once again in the Russian Silicon Valley. What has changed in the past three years? Formally, there should be quite a lot. Skolkovo has been populated by Cisco, Microsoft, and others. The flow of grants has increased. But globally, nothing has changed.

”Is there no normal entrance to this universum?”
“You have to pay for a normal entrance, pal.”
Documentary film “Kin-dza-dza”

There are minibusses that go to Skolkovo, and buses have been organized to Startup Village every 15-30 minutes from Victory Park. And those who used these buses did absolutely the right thing because it is impossible to reach the remote wilderness of the innovation center by any other means.

Instead, I took the train to Trekhgorka station. It turned out to be more convenient for me than going to Victory Park and waiting for the bus. Besides, according to the map, it’s not far from there. But that’s just on the map. In reality, there is no proper road from the railway station towards Skolkovo—only trenches and ditches.

Further along the highway. Eventually, the buildings of Skolkovo begin to appear in the distance. Until that moment, I blamed myself for choosing the wrong path. It turns out, it was in vain. The inner territory is no better.

Welcome to Startup Village!

I pass through the gates. It’s obvious that this passage is meant for vehicles, but the security lets me through. Then I need to walk about a kilometer along a dusty road. Along the way, I come across a sign that says “Hypercube.” It looks quite amusing.

Almost there.

Very close now.

Visitor parking. Well, you understand that the center is still under construction, so you’ll have to park your car on the roadside in the mud.

And here is the entrance. I have arrived.

They are handing out badges. The girls at the entrance skillfully scan the QR code on the badge with an iPad and say, “Please proceed.” Innovations. However, the girls are unaware that registering for the event through the website takes two days. First, they require filling out a lengthy questionnaire with passport details and a photograph. Then, an email arrives confirming the acceptance of the questionnaire, and one must enter their home address in the personal account. The address is sent to a moderator who activates the payment option the following day. After that, finally, one can make the payment.

Why do they need my photograph? Why do they require my home address? Why is it checked by a moderator and how can the moderator verify it? Even for an airplane, a flying iron bird that transports people to another country, tickets are purchased more easily than gaining entry to the Hypercube—a stationary piece of concrete on the ground. Meanwhile, the security hardly checks belongings. Innovations.

What is this Hypercube then? A mathematician would say it’s a cube in more than three dimensions. In simpler terms, it’s a four-dimensional cube. In Skolkovo, they call one of the buildings by that name. The building is very interesting. The thing is, it looks... like a cube. Just an ordinary concrete house with large windows. The difference is that it’s covered with an LED mesh displaying video images. That’s the Skolkovo Hypercube.

You can even walk between the walls of the cube and the mesh. It’s probably not very pleasant to work in such a cage.

So here it is, Startup Village.

To be honest, I thought that startups in Russia had completely died out. Startup Weekend vanished without a trace, Greenfield Project dissolved, and Glavstart failed. It turns out that one significant event is still alive. But the projects here are on a different scale. Startup Village, a supporter of Skolkovo, focuses on practical spheres such as medicine, energy, industry, and the utilization of IT technologies in them, rather than ephemeral social networks and other media nonsense. Lectures and pitches take place in wooden houses on the street.

Lectures also take place in the Hypersphere, on the second floor. They were talking, for example, about what is happening in Skolkovo. The presenters argued that “the city exists.” Participants asked pointed questions like, “When will the innopolis have a proper infrastructure, as it’s currently inaccessible?”

In general, the cube is quite nicely decorated. Portraits of inventors are hanging on the walls.

Various quotes.

Green poufs.

And here are innovations in the Russian language. Gentlemen, have you ever seen Russian organizers poorly translating English names into Russian at a Russian event? I always thought it could only be done the other way around.

Restrooms. I didn’t take photos of what’s inside. We all know how disgusting the filthy portable toilets look throughout Moscow, standing as an unsightly disgrace. Why do we need so many toilets (there are just as many behind the camera), and why couldn’t something more innovative be installed? It’s completely unclear. Foreigners are watching, after all.

As for the projects, everything is very sad. There is a stand with the largest 3D printer in Russia. As if someone has never seen 3D printers, especially large ones.

Someone is walking around with quadcopters.

Angry Birds are probably innovations too.

I was only interested in one small project — a bicycle with haptic feedback. The thing is, the latest technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence are beginning to focus on user-machine interactions. This is extensively discussed in Donald Norman’s new book “The Design of Future Things.” The bicycle with a vibrating handlebar is a small, not well-understood, but very interesting step in the right direction.

But people hardly pay attention to all these booths. What do they pay attention to then? There are cafes located around the entire perimeter of the Hypersphere. And guess what, there are massive queues for them.

Everyone is occupied with food.

I also grabbed a snack. While having lunch, I overhear a lecture in the neighboring pavilion: “He had a startup related to food delivery... and he was very skillful at selling shawarma.” And then it struck me. That’s it — what Russian startups should be focusing on. Food and delivery. That’s what is truly in demand in the market right now.

And you can say it without any irony. Russia, which practiced communist food scarcity for 70 years, began to eat reasonably well only about 20 years ago at most. Good quality food, especially with delivery, started appearing in the country no earlier than 5 years ago. Food is a completely new industry for us. Delivery too. The great space power has never before developed these areas. I believe that Russian innovations lie in food and infrastructure. They should be developed. And they are developing, even without investments. There is still a long way to go, but there is ample room for action.

And when the innovations in food and infrastructure are finally exhausted, when stomachs are filled and no longer shaken to nausea on bumps and potholes—then, perhaps, Russia should once again venture into high technologies. Well-fed and fast-moving, rather than hungry and stuck in traffic. That time, I am absolutely certain, everything will work out.

PS. Already preparing to leave, I suddenly thought it would be nice to listen to a lecture on economics or business. I found a booth by PWC with the topic “Business Plan and Financial Calculations.” I thought it was important to attend such a lecture. But once again, disappointment struck me. The representative of the largest consulting firm simply paraphrased Marx’s capital approach, adding a few obvious indicators for a business plan to their presentation.

Not this one.