Gigaom

Trend to Watch: Innovation, Made in Russia


The first trip to Silicon Valley often has a profound impact on foreign entrepreneurs. But for the founders of 13 Russian startups currently touring the region, visiting the Valley isn’t just about changing their own points of view; it’s about changing their country.

The startups, all part of the state-sponsored Skolkovo IT Cluster, are accompanied by a reality TV crew that documents the founders’ every move.

The idea is to encourage young Russians to take risks, pursue IT opportunities, and maybe adopt a little bit of Silicon Valley culture in the process (such as the idea that failing with a startup doesn’t mean you need to change careers). Katia Gaika, IT Cluster’s deputy director for education and research, told me that Silicon Valley’s embrace of failing is very foreign to people in Russia. “Failure is not acceptable,” she said.

Skolkovo IT Cluster was founded last year as part of a larger initiative to turn Moscow’s Skolkovo suburb into a kind of Russian Silicon Valley. The plan was initiated by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, and the Skolkovo foundation has since won financial and logistical backing from pretty much every U.S. tech heavyweight. Cisco alone has committed to invest $1 billion over 10 years in the region. Part of that money is now used to jump-start Russian startups. “In order to change things, you have to start doing things,” Gaika told me.

SOME STARTUPS TO KNOW

So what kind of things are Russian startup founders doing these days? Definitely things we should pay attention to. The 13 companies taking part in the trip are going to demo their products on Wednesday, Oct. 12, as part of a showcase, but I got to meet representatives of three of them earlier this week. I have to say I was impressed.

One of the founders I met was Ilya Gelfenbeyn, whose startup Speaktoit has launched a virtual assistant on Android that looks a bit like Apple’s just-launched Siri, albeit with a friendlier avatar.

Speaktoit is using a cloud-based service to process voice input, translate it into more formalized search queries for external Web services, and send the resulting data to the end user as part of a conversation with the app’s avatar.

Gelfenbeyn told me that downloads of his company’s Android app have tripled since Apple announced Siri and that Speaktoit hopes to have an iOS app out in two weeks.

BIOMETRIC ID; 3D ANIMATION

Alexey Khitrov from STC Innovations demonstrated how you can use the webcam that’s standard on every laptop and many mobile devices for advanced biometric security. What if, he asked me, your cloud-based e-mail wasn’t secured by a simple password, but by a biometric ID check that could be launched right within the browser? Khitrov’s startup has been founded out of STC, a Russian speech recognition specialist with 20 years of experience and an R&D team of 150. Khitrov now wants to use the inherited knowledge to build his own biometrics empire. “We want to build the company to be a force to be reckoned with,” he told me.

The last pitch I got was from Bazelevs Innovation, and the idea was the most original: Bazelevs has built a technology called FilmLanguage that can turn text input into 3D animation. It was initially built to visualize ideas during the production process of a movie, but the company quickly realized this could be used in a whole range of settings.

What if you sent someone a text message, and the recipient’s phone would turn it into a small animated clip? Or how about helping lawyers and insurers visualize accidents based on witness reports? Bazelevs Innovations’ vice-president for business development, Sergei V. Kuzmin, told me the company is targeting the U.S. especially for this kind of forensics visualization. “We don’t have the liability industry,” he joked.

Other startups taking part in the roadshow have come up with solutions for image tagging, 3D cloud rendering, clustered Web search, and more. Most of them have been doing significant technology development, which IT Cluster Executive Director Alexander Turkot characterized as a key part of the initiative. Turkot said the goal isn’t simply to copy U.S. innovations or build yet another social network. “We try to utilize Russia’s advantages,” he said, arguing that the country’s strong education and research foundation can help local startup founders compete internationally.

Of course, some simply choose to leave and seek their fortunes in the Valley instead. “Brain drain is kind of unavoidable,” Turkot admitted, but added: “We believe in brain circulation.” Build a better foundation for innovation, and some of those expats may come back, he argued. Skolkovo is part of that plan, and the roadshow was also to signal that Russia is getting serious about innovation. Said Gaika: “These are our ambassadors.”

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Roettgers is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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