A recruitment tour — led by the city's vice president, Igor Bogachev — arrived in San Francisco this week. Launched in 2010 with $3 billion in private and public investment, Skolkovo has about 1,060 resident technologists, and aims to have 20,000 living in the city by 2020. Russian technocrats are recruiting engineers from all over the country and around the world, promising funding, support and streamlined access to the difficult-to-penetrate Soviet region.
Between meetings with investors, Bogachev sat down with me for a chat over lemon biscotti at the Mandarin Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
"The idea is to pollinate and create an ecosystem, so we are creating a league of the best, filtering for expertise," he said. "An army of scientists and programmers."
The city is focusing on five areas: Information technology, biotech, space, nuclear and energy efficiency. For the infotech program alone, the recruiters received 2,500 applications for 340 spots.
"All our startups are building core technology, not the e-commerce, social, that kind of thing," Bogachev said.
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Bogachev, who was for many years an executive at Xerox and then at SAP, noted that Russia doesn't have the same startup culture the had observed in Silicon Valley: "It's hard, especially if you take the Soviet history — we have a lot of great minds, but it needs an injection of innovation," he said.
In an effort to change the culture, Skoltech University, built in partnership with with MIT, will have no Russian professors, as a rule. Tuition is free, and students will be given stipends to attend. The city is about two kilometers southwest of Moscow.
"The success of our project is not in the infrastructure but in training the entrepreneurs," Bogachev said.
They're rolling out a "soft landing program" to help startups register as companies, will provide six months of free co-working, and will fund 75 percent of R&D budget.
Startups in Skolkovo are three times more likely to be funded than elsewhere in Russia, including Moscow.
A few dozen Skolkovo representatives and entrepreneurs came along on the Bay Area trip, which included visits to Draper University, Autodesk, Cisco, Google, Stanford, SpaceX and Coherent (for the nuclear cluster). They had just visited Boston. They have already signed up institutional partners, including Boeing, IBM and Read MoreSamsung. On Thursday night, Bogachev hosted an information session for a couple hundred Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to learn about the new city.
"Russian programmers and mathematicians are very famous," he said. "The startups don't need to entirely move, just open an office."
And then, joking, he added: "Of course you know the weather conditions are much better in Russia than here."
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