Two days in the Russian startup wonderland [EN]

The word that comes to my mind about Moscow is MASSIVE. Monuments are impressive, buildings are impossibly long and high, roads have six lanes even in the center of the city. "Massive" is also the general feeling you have when you enter Skolkovo, the “Russian Silicon Valley”...

Continental weather is not a joke…two months ago, I came to Russia for the launch of NUMA Moscow and it was freezing outside. But this week, oh my god, the sun is shining, the temperature is a comfortable 25°C and I can walk the city center marveling at its beauty. The word that comes to my mind about Moscow is MASSIVE. Monuments are impressive, buildings are impossibly long and high, roads have six lanes even in the center of the city…

“Massive” is also the general feeling you have when you enter Skolkovo, the “Russian Silicon Valley” under construction. Five years ago, the former President Medvedev launched this colossal program, which aims to provide facilities and support for reseachers and entrepreneurs and generate innovative startups. The principle is similar to Paris Saclay in France, the difference being that Skolkvo is built ex-nihilo. Still a long way to go since completion (estimated 2020 with railway connexion for instance), but there are already some facilities up and running.

It is around these three brand new buildings in the middle of nowhere that Startup Village takes place. “Massive” is again the word I would choose to qualify the event: 10 000 people, 2000 startups, 500 investors, 100+ talks and panels. The open stage is impressive with its three large screens, suspended speakers like for a U2 concert and seats awaiting hundreds of people.

I had the privilege to be on stage with Andrew Romans for a debate about whether unicorns can really emerge in Russia and Europe, moderated by Ilya Golubovitch, a Partner at I2BF Global Ventures. Andrew’s point of view, as an american and a VC, was very interesting. He mainly argued it was a no brainer, that you have to go to the US and grow your company there. Admittedly, Criteo is listed to Nasdaq and not on the french exchange market, but I promoted the fact that for now Blablacar or Sigfox, who recently raised 100 millions of dollars, are still european.

One thing we fully agreed on is that a startup won’t become a unicorn if it doesn’t go global fast enough. I took this opportunity to officially announce that applications for NUMA Moscow were open. We definitely intend to help french, russian and franco-russian startups to go global and become unicorns

A little later, I attended a fascinating roundtable about corporate and startups collaboration, gathering large company representatives and VCs. The main take away is that corporates in Russia are increasingly aware that they need to connect to startups in order to survive the digital transformation of their market. The speakers were very honest about the huge challenge it represents for corporates to overcome their deeply rooted “R&D” culture. They fully measure the difficulty to make corporates and startups work together. This confirms that NUMA comes at the right moment to propagate its innovation program and help the russian ecosystem build on the synergies between giants and innovators.

Of course, startups were everywhere : pitching on the three different stages, presenting their solutions in their booth, aligned in rows of ten, pitching again on the open stage for the startup constest.

What struck me the most was the high technicity of their products: a solution for dacryocystitis (eye sickness), chemical product for pipe deslugging, gas pressure regulator, self configurating wireless network in space, anticorrosive coating, etc. The majority of the team cumulates 50 years of research experience and owns between one and five patents. Even on pure IT, we’re far from the usual Uber-like B2C software: we’re talking robotics, telecommunication, space technology … the “softer” thing I saw was a portable ECG device no bigger than an iPod, enabling people to monitor their heart on their smartphone!

The drawback is that the presentations are deadly serious and technical, focused on the product and the infinitely smart idea or technology behind. “What is the business model?” asked the jury. Without exaggeration, the guys on stage had no clue : they didn’t really bother who would be their clients, how they would sell it, how much money they would make. When asked about sales, they answered about costs. In fact, all this looks like an R&D team asking for a budget.

I shouldn’t be that surprised, since it is exactly the aim of Skolkovo to turn those brilliant brains into practical entrepreneurs. I’m all the more convinced that NUMA can bring what’s missing to the russian ecosystem, by bringing diversity in the team, training on UX design, business model canvas and how to deal with corporates … and we should also provide english classes: 9 out of 10 pitched in russian and relied on the translators of the festival, probably because they think the russian market is big enough for them.

France was not different five years ago when we launched the first acceleration program for startups. I’m eager to bring the lessons we’ve learned to the russian ecosystem now.
Dear fellows form the far east,
apply to NUMA Moscow !

Frédéric Oru, COO @ NUMA
twitter : @FredOru

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