Over the past couple of years, Skolkovo has received over 10,000 online applications. Applicants range from companies and startup groups to scientific centres, universities, student groups and distinguished scientists. Most applicants fail to become residents. “The main challenge here is either a project doesn’t fit into the five clusters or it hasn’t been worked through. Sometimes companies overestimate their abilities or their idea has already been developed in the market,” says Chernov.
Currently, more than 900 Skolkovo residents or startup companies are working on projects across the five clusters. Many of them have already received grants from the Skolkovo Fund said to expect to be worth $2bn (£1.28bn) by 2019.
One of the grant recipients is Fruct founded by Russian and Finnish universities together with Nokia. Although they won the money last year, they should receive the $300,000 (£191,000) grant this autumn to develop a mobile device which monitors eight key diagnostic markers such as cardiovascular, pulmonology and endocrinologic readings, to help monitor potential health problems such as arterial hypertension arrhythmia, asthma, and diabetes.. Asked about how they will spend the money, the head of Fruct, Sergey Balandin, says: “The challenge was to make investors believe in our project. We will put more emphasis on the research now. We will try to improve the weak sides of our project with the help of Skolkovo Fund’s specialists and prepare the product to enter the market.”
Other hopefuls have not been so lucky. Bravo Motors applied for the grant to finance its project for an ultra-light electric vehicle called the e-Trike. The main challenge for Bravo now is to find $1.4 m (£890,000) in investment to complete the development of the e-Trike, carry out bench and field testing, and start production. But to get tax incentives, the company had to change the e-Trike’s colour from red to green – the same colour used on Skolkovo’s logo. Being part of Skolkovo may mean compromises.
Skolkovo has not been without rumours of corruption, either. Medvedev tried to avoid corruption by appointing Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg as the President of Skolkovo. But 2013 started with several cases. Skoltech University is being created to educate in-house innovators of tomorrow. MIT is heavily involved with the project, helping Skoltech with the structure, educational and research programs. The university hasn’t been built yet – but already it has created a corruption scandal. The state audit office found out recently that millions of dollars allocated to Skolkovo’s Skoltech, went, instead, to finance programs and grants at MIT. The government tried to bury the story, but Russian newspaper Izvestia got hold of the case documents
Then there is the political situation to contend with. Even Skolkovo’s biggest cheerleaders understand start-ups like the e-Trike won’t be able to make a return on the multi-billion-dollar investments poured into the project. Russian politicians, in general, are distrustful of innovations they don’t understand such as a recent discussion at Skolkovo on the creation perpetuum mobile.
A source close to Skolkovo who wished to remain anonymous, says: “The success of Skolkovo should be assessed on the basis of whether it manages to create a huge and successful business like Yandex [Russia’s biggest search engine] and Mail.ru [Russian email].”
The challenge for Skolkovo is to prove it can make money, rather than just spend it. It has been created from the very top of the political spectrum - with huge investments – but the buildings remain unconstructed, and the ideas that could make it profitable remain untapped. The question is, will this always be the case?