Skolkovo has begun accepting applications from startup companies in the agriculture business and expects its first residents by the end of the year, opening up new avenues of research that experts say are of critical importance for biotech in Russian and beyond.

The Russian government earlier this year identified the agricultural sector as one that requires special attention as the need for a switch toward a higher degree of self-sufficiency through import-substitution becomes more pressing.

Not only does the government stand to benefit from advancements in the farming sector, but also regular consumers, who are looking for new drugs for their pets or more choice at the restaurant through domestic oyster or sea cucumber cultivation.

Agriculture startups will fall under the wing of the biotech cluster headed up by Skolkovo vice president Kirill Kaem.

Areas of research will include crop farming (creating new varieties, improving soils, precision farm technology and efficient land use, harvesting and storage); animal husbandry (cellular and genetic engineering, animal breeding, veterinary and feeding technology, and the protection of livestock); and industrial biotechnology in agriculture such as biocatalysis, metabolic engineering and the advancement of fermentation processes.

Some of the other fields of investigation include the processing and recycling of agriculture-based products (including packaging, quality control and food safety and storage); and forestry (in particular molecular marking techniques for the identification and genetic monitoring of forestry resources, controlling the origin of timber against illegal logging, waste disposal and the paper industry).

Skolkovo VP Kirill Kaem, a leading authority in biomed. Photo:

By 2020, the biomed cluster expects around 200 resident agro-startups, creating more than 1,000 jobs. The private investment in these projects over the next six years should reach 5 billion rubles, helping generate combined revenues of 7 billion rubles over that time.

Import substitution may be a short-term priority, but Kaem and his team have broader, more important goals.

“Many futurologists believe that if current population growth rates are maintained as well as the current human model of consumption, hunger will be the chief cause of mortality in the second half of the century,” Kaem said.

The world's population will increase from today's 7.3 billion people to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion at century's end, said John Wilmoth, the director of the United Nations Population Division, earlier this month.

 “This situation, whereby we now spend significantly more money on the fight against cancer than against hunger, which, as they forecast, will be one of the main risks for our children’s generation, seems to me to be genuinely serious.”

Other issues impacting agriculture are climate change and the decrease in the quality and quality of fertile land, which will inevitably push food prices up further and ramp up demand for new technological solutions, perhaps with the help of innovation in the IT and robotics sector, Kaem said.

Another inevitability is the need for adopting genetically modified food production, because the shortfalls in food supplies cannot be eliminated with current chemical pesticides, Kaem said.

Currently, however, “we are working at the Skolkovo biomed cluster in strict adherence to Russia law, which outlaws GMO products in this country,” he added.

Meanwhile, the microbiology side of the agriculture business is looking like an increasingly promising area of development, according to Yuri Nikolsky, director of science at the biomed cluster.

“The development of new microbial producer strains is a traditionally strong field in Russia. Compared to other areas like plant selection, industrial microbiology has been strong and is still strong at several research centers. So it’s no surprise that the first agro residency application uploaded to the Skolkovo website came from a new microbiology startup,” he said.

“Powerful technologies such as genomic selection and genomic engineering have been around for a few years, but only recently has it become clear that they are applicable to the agriculture industry,” Nikolsky added.

 “By using these modern methods, our agricultural sector might gain technological parity with the leading markets of the world. For example, traditional selection of animal and plant species takes at least 10 years. But genomic selection, starting with strain collections of today, may help to speed up the process several times.

The new fields of research are not wholly restricted to agriculture, pharmaceuticals will also get a significant boost, said Kirill Kaem, the biomed cluster executive director.

“Our foresights let us work not only with agro business, but also with domestic pets, and that is a giant market,” Kaem said. “The industry of animal care has been coming on leaps and bounds in the last few years. Developing pet medications doesn’t require long-winded clinical trials. The cluster has several companies that research meds for human cancer patients. These teams don’t rule out the possibility of putting out pet versions while the human medications are still undergoing clinical trials.”

Sea cucumber, or trepang, is widely used in Asian cooking. Photo: flickr

A couple of examples of the kind of benefits that the new agriculture research field could usher in: So-called double-haploid technology could increase the quality of beetroot in Russia and would yield relatively fast results for one of the country’s rare exported goods. In another example, foxes could turn from pests to pets, and the domestication process would turn out important data on how desirable and undesirable behavior is achieved. That would build upon research by renowned scientist Evgeny Rogaev, who studies the biological mechanisms behind aggression.

Gastronomes would welcome another potential impact of expanding into agro-tech: a reduction in the price of sea cucumber, known in parts of Asia as trepang, which is renowned for its taste and health benefits and used in Chinese cooking and medicine. Trepang currently sells for up to 20,000 rubles per kilo in Russia’s Far East, where the best varieties es grow off Vladivostok, in the Gulf of Peter the Great.  

The problem with trepang is it takes too long to grow. But modifying the genome would accelerate and standardize the rate of growth, a process that scientists in the Far East are currently studying.

Sea flora in general is a promising area of research, said Kirill Kaem. “They contain a lot of biologically active substances that can be used in medicine. That’s why in the framework of [Skolkovo] projects in the Far East, medicinal and marine science can interact under the Skolkovo biomed cluster,” he added.

All in all, the innovations produced by Skolkovo’s agro startups will enjoy strong demand from regular consumers, said Anton Pushkov, the director of Skolkovo’s Intellectual Property Center.

He said it would pave the way to a future that blurred the lines between medicine and nutrition.

“In the future we will not only see personalized medicine, but the production of food that’s made specially for the individual, taking into account things like allergies and biocompatibility,” Pushkov said.