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‘The potential in Russia is very big:’ international startups out in force at Startup Village

This year’s Startup Village, a giant two-day open-air conference for tech entrepreneurs and investors held at the Skolkovo innovation city, was more international than ever before, with startups from Japan, France, Italy, Bangladesh and Korea all taking part.

Kazakhstan's pavilion was offering consultations and information on its international acceleration programme. Photo: Sk.ru.

This year’s partner country was Japan, which had its own pavilion at the Startup Village, flanked by artificial cherry blossom trees.

Almost 30 Japanese companies working in fields including IT software, healthcare and agriculture are taking part in the Startup Village, Japan’s ambassador to Russia, Toyohisa Kozuki, said at the opening of the pavilion, expressing hope that they would find business opportunities with Russian companies.

The opening of the Japanese pavilion at the Startup Village was one of hundreds of events taking place as part of the Year of Japan in Russia and the Year of Russia in Japan, which was launched on May 26 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

“We have more than 300 events in Russia to introduce Japan: not just culture, but the economy and politics too,” Kozuki said at the pavilion’s opening.

“Technology is a very important part that connects Japan and Russia … I hope that inspired by this event [the Startup Village], our economic and business interaction will expand,” he said.

Japan, the official country partner of this year's Startup Village, had a pavilion flanked by artificial sakuras. Photo: Sk.ru.

Italy also had its own pavilion at the Startup Village, showcasing more than 30 Italian startups brought over by the Italian Trade Agency in Moscow.

“We have 35 companies for the first time in Skolkovo,” Pier Paolo Celeste, director of the Italian Trade Agency in Moscow, told Sk.ru.

“We proposed this to Italian companies and they were enthusiastic to get into the Russian innovation ecosystem,” he said.

“Then, just as when you go to the most remote place in the world you find a pizza, we found there is already an Italian company working in Skolkovo: Tau Industrial Robotics,” said Celeste.

Foued Kefif of Business France pictured at the French Tech stand. Photo: Sk.ru.

Tau, which was founded in Turin before opening a Russian company that is a resident startup of Skolkovo’s energy cluster, develops industrial solutions including solvent-free enamelling and contactless polymers analysis.

“This is a very, very good example of Italian intuition applied to Russian technology and is already working in this industrial process,” said Celeste.

“Then we have the Enel Innovation Hub that was recently opened at Skolkovo,” he said.

The Italian startups on show represented all areas of tech: “everything from biotech to fashion to digital shows,” in the words of Celeste.

The director of the Italian Trade Agency in Moscow said his primary expectation of the Startup Village was that the Italian startups would network, including among themselves.

“It’s a world made of many niches, in which every cell is related to another via seven degrees of separation, so it was important to put them together,” Celeste told Sk.ru.

“Now we are expanding knowledge and their position here on the Russian market.”

One of the startups on show at the Italian stand was The Edge Company, which also made it through to the semi-finals of the Startup Village competition. The company is developing a Bird Concentration Monitoring System (BCMS) that uses algorithms and AI to monitor areas around airports to reduce the probability of bird strikes. The system recognizes species of birds, counts their number and predicts trajectories to ensure flight safety without interfering with birds’ natural habitat.

The Edge Company’s Fabio Masci demonstrated to Sk.ru how AI can be used to recognise real 3D objects, using a coffee machine as an example. When a tablet computer was pointed at the coffee machine, step-by-step instructions on how to use it appeared on the screen.

“It has various applications, including for maintenance, or user guides: if you sell something, instead of giving papers [with instructions], you can give this framework to users,” he told Sk.ru. Companies can also troubleshoot their products by getting customers to use augmented reality on the object, allowing the company to monitor and see if something goes wrong in real time, said Masci.

The company has also developed AR glasses that would bring up 3D images of objects in museums and provide the viewer with detailed information about them, as well as an AR headset that visualizes the inside and internal processes of the human body in order to make medical explanations clearer.

La French Tech was also out in force at this year’s Startup Village, with its own stand and 11 startups taking part in the event.

“We think that the potential in Russia is very big, and Russian people are very open to the French, and French people, when they travel to Russia, are very surprised and impressed,” Foued Kefif, head of technologies and services at Business France Russia, told Sk.ru. 

On Thursday, the Kazakhstan pavilion had a line of people eager for consultations on entering the market. More than 70 percent of foreign investment in Central Asia goes to Kazakhstan, which is home to 11 special economic zones and 22 industrial zones.

“My feeling is that we have to bring the best technologies here, to make them discover the country, and I’m sure many of them will invest here, settle a business, hire people, and that’s why I wanted to make this exhibition of La French Tech,” he said.

French Tech Moscow, which aims to help French startups enter the Russian market, was launched at Skolkovo by Emmanuel Macron himself back in 2016 when the president was France’s Minister for Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

Macron was back in Russia last week for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and joining him on the plane to St. Petersburg were eight companies taking part in the French Tech Tour Russia.

Of the 11 startups at the Skolkovo Startup Village, five work in retail tech, two in hardware, and four in B2B and platforms, said Kefif. Several of them took part in the Startup Village’s competition programme, though Kefif said it had not been an easy experience for them, given that the other pitches and many of the jury’s comments were in Russian.

Seven startups from Bangladesh showcased their products at this year's Startup Bazaar. Photo: Sk.ru.

Business France had two goals in taking part in the Startup Village, said Kefif.

“The first is to promote France as a startup nation where the startup ecosystem is booming: in 2017, startups settled in France raised 3.2 billion euros, compared with 2 billion in 2016. So we want to attract Russian startups and talent to go to France,” he said.

“The second objective is to accelerate the business of our startups here. I hope a few of the 11 startups we have brought will come back here before the end of the year or in the next year to open offices and launch their business here.”

Kefif said the French Tech Tour Russia appears to have been a success.

“We went with the startups to the largest Russian companies: Sberbank, Rosbank; yesterday we met RZD (Russian Railways) and Russian Post here, and they are all very open to meet with French startups, which is really amazing,” he said.

“The visit of Emmanuel Macron last week really helped too of course. It gave so much energy to the group, so we’re very happy,” added Kefif.

Kazakhstan also had its own pavilion where startups could learn more about Startup Kazakhstan, its international acceleration programme. Participants in the accelerator get $20,000 in investment, plus a second round of $100,000 for the best projects. They also get the chance to go to Silicon Valley, tax breaks and support in setting up an international company.

Sung-Ho Lee, founder and CEO of OnSQUARE, demonstrates his Soundcorset tuner and metronome app. Photo: Sk.ru.

On Thursday, the pavilion had a line of people eager for consultations on entering the Kazakh market. More than 70 percent of foreign investment in Central Asia goes to Kazakhstan, which is home to 11 special economic zones and 22 industrial zones.

Over at the Startup Bazaar, about a dozen Korean startups supported by a government agency there were demonstrating their products, including Sung-Ho Lee, founder and CEO of OnSQUARE, the maker of the Soundcorset app, which combines a metronome and tuning function with a sound recorder. He said that taking part in the Startup Bazaar had been useful, and that he had met a lot of people at the Startup Village, including many who already know and use his app.

Alongside the Korean companies were seven Bangladeshi startups, including the Bangladesh Robotics Foundation, a non-profit organisation that was exhibiting its pipe inspection robot designed for finding cracks and damage in petrol and chemical pipelines before they leak. Nearby, fellow Bangladeshi company Sigmund demonstrated its intelligent camera-based mass surveillance and traffic management systems, which use artificial intelligence.

Switzerland was also represented at the Startup Bazaar by Park Innovaare, an innovations hub set up at the Paul Scherrer Institute, and one of its resident companies, Advanced Accelerator Technologies, which provides compact synchrotron radiation sources, making the (normally space-consuming) technology accessible for factories and laboratories.