In New Project, Russian Universities Tap American Expertise in Tech Transfer

Sergey Kozmin for The Chronicle

A graduate student works with a laser particle analyzer at the National University of Science and Technology, in Moscow, one of several research institutions in Russia that will collaborate with American universities in commercializing scientific research.
September 30, 2010

Universities in Russia could soon be adopting American-style innovations like business incubators and spin-off companies to help commercialize their research, thanks to an effort to promote greater ties between Russian academe and industry.

The project, which goes by the acronym Eureca—for Enhancing University Research and Entrepreneurial Capacity—will bring together several of Russia's newly designated "national research universities" to work with teams from four American institutions to learn the nuts and bolts of technology transfer and other approaches for collaborating with industry. A consortium of foundations from the United States and Russia is backing the project.

While technology transfer and university-industry economic partnerships are well-established elements of higher education in the United States, and increasingly, in others parts of the world, they are a new and potentially controversial phenomenon for Russia's academic culture.

Russia last year adopted its own version of America's 30-year-old Bayh-Dole Act, giving its universities the right to own and commercialize the findings arising from their research. But Russia lacks depth of expertise in matters like protecting academic intellectual property. Concerns about corruption could also scare away potential business partners.

"They have good science, it's clear. They don't necessarily have a culture of entrepreneurship," said Brian Darmody, associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Maryland at College Park, one of the four American institutions taking part in Eureca.

The others are Purdue University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Washington. Eureca, which is to be announced today, will start with a 10-day program in October that includes intensive training, site visits to the American institutions, and a Washington, D.C., reception for American and Russian academic, political, and business leaders.

Eureca is designed to dovetail with recent moves in Russia to beef up support for universities and bolster the nation's "knowledge economy" so the country can be less reliant on its oil and other natural resources. Under Russia's president, Dmitiri A. Medvedev, the government is also investing in the creation of a new science and technology business hub in the town of Skolkovo, near Moscow, that aims to be the Silicon Valley of Russia.

"Our ambition is to make sure universities are much more integrated into local and regional economic systems" and more responsive to the needs of local industries, said Andrey Vadimovich Kortunov, president of the Moscow-based New Eurasia Foundation, one of two Russian foundations helping to carry out the program. "With all the positive things you can say about the Russian university system," he added, in a telephone interview from Moscow, "it has been detached from labor-market and regional needs."

Training in the U.S. and Russia

The American universities were selected because they already had some academic ties to Russia and because organizers of the project were seeking institutions that have experience in local and statewide economic development.

Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod and the St. Petersburg State University of Information Technology, Mechanics, and Optics were selected as the two Eureca hubs in Russia. Over the next two years, teams from the American universities will train their counterparts on the two campuses in things like evaluating the commercial potential of inventions and tapping into the expertise of their business schools and their local business and finance executives. The Russians, in turn, will train academics at other Russian universities.

For Mr. Kortunov, the project reflects a significant shift for Russia. "For the first time in many, many years, the Russian government and Russian universities are interested in utilizing relevant foreign experience," he said. Not everyone, whether professors or university managers, will appreciate the new direction, he said. The goal, he argued, is not to turn universities into commercial enterprises but to shift their orientation a bit.

Some Russian academics said the project could be a welcome one. Younger professors in particular are increasingly interested in forming their own companies.

For the American institutions, the project holds the opportunity to develop new scientific partnerships and, perhaps, an entree into some of the new investment funds the Russian government is putting behind its commercialization efforts.

Eureca is designed to be more than theoretical. The academic teams will also collaborate on commercializing actual technologies from the Russian universities, most likely inventions in fields like nanotechnology and computer science.

That's an important element of the project, said Maryland's Mr. Darmody. "It's a way to demonstrate some of the softer skills" involved in technology transfer, which goes beyond simply getting a patent and signing a license. For that reason, the project also involves groups like the Association of University Research Parks, of which Mr. Darmody is a past president, as well as representatives of American venture-capital organizations and business-incubator groups.

As part of the 10-day kickoff, more than a dozen Russian university officials will take part in a training session conducted by the Association of University Technology Managers.

Financing for the project—up to $2.5-million a year for the initial two years—is coming from the U.S.-Russian Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law. Along with the New Eurasia Foundation, two American-based foundations are carrying out the project: the American Councils for International Education, in Washington, and the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, in Seattle.