On the margins of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, I joined John Beyrle, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, for a meeting with a dynamic group of about 20 young Russian entrepreneurs to discuss their role in and expectations for Russia's economic transformation and modernization.
One of the topics of conversation was the Skolkovo Innovation Center -- a new high-tech hub for research and business housed just outside of Moscow. Many of these young entrepreneurs, who boasted advanced degrees from leading U.S. universities, believed the center would help infuse an innovative culture into Russia. They also welcomed ideas for more business and academic exchanges, which would focus on developing managerial skills in the high-tech/emerging sectors; new business models that would encourage use and development of new technologies; and better public diplomacy from the government on the benefits of innovation and technology to increase demand for these products and highlight their efficiency in everyday life.
Russia already possesses key elements needed for innovation. But to really take root innovation must be given a fertile legal and cultural environment at home and understood as international and cross-cultural: it also requires the free flow of ideas within and among nations and other unconventional models of education and management. I believe President Medvedev and his team have made the innovation a high national priority, to diversify the Russian economy and reduce dependence on energy and raw materials. The U.S. business community and top universities and research institutions are currently working with their Russian counterparts to achieve these goals.
The Skolkovo model is a good demonstration of this commitment. I noted that we hoped that Skolkovo will inspire other centers of innovation to flourish, promoting spin-off firms, perhaps around specific companies, that happened in the U.S. with Raytheon, Fairchild, and Microsoft, as well as around government institutions, for example National Institutes of Health.
Most importantly, good government policies to support entrepreneurship in the whole of Russia need to be put in place, such as laws to promote flexible labor movement, bankruptcy laws that allow easy entry and exit of firms, and investment tax credits. But most importantly the culture should not look at failure as the end of the road but as providing lessons learned to enable individuals and companies to continue the push towards successful ventures - just as did Thomas Edison with the electric light bulb.
In short, the meeting with the young Russian entrepreneurs was inspiring. Their active participation in such an important forum with high level Russian government and international CEO attendance is an important signal that Russia is looking towards the next generation as future drivers of Russia's modernization and integration in the 21st century global economy.