“Investors are like predators: when one smells the blood, the rest will follow – in a positive way!” says Pekka Viljakainen of the large numbers of investors expected at this year’s Startup Village, the massive open-air event for tech entrepreneurs that kicks off Thursday at the Skolkovo innovation centre.
Pekka 'The Bulldozer' Viljakainen at the Kaliningrad stage of this year's Startup Tour. Photo: Sk.ru.
“They go there and then they hunt together. We’ve seen this happen at Slush [the major tech startup conference] in Helsinki, and we hope that they can smell the blood here,” chuckles the Finnish entrepreneur, an advisor to Skolkovo Foundation president Viktor Vekselberg and the driving force behind the Startup Village.
The two-day event, now in its fourth year, is this year expected to attract more participants than ever: more than 2,000 startups and 700 investors from 20 countries.
More than 100 innovative projects, ranging from a 3D satellite printer and industrial robot to mobile medical diagnosis devices and the Hoversurf – an aerial drone that can transport people – will be on show at the Startup Bazaar, the exhibition section of the event. There will also be an area dedicated to virtual and augmented reality, and a drone race. But the event is not just for fun.
“We don’t organize the Startup Village because we want to have 12,000 people drinking coffee in the sunshine,” says Viljakainen. “We are here to generate new jobs.”
Accordingly, the conference part of the event covers a wealth of topics, ranging from practical sessions for startups on how to obtain a patent, attract investors or enter foreign markets, to talks by leading Russian and foreign businesspeople and investors. Startups can arrange meetings in advance with potential investors at the event, and vice versa.
“The Startup Village is all about learning: startups learning from other startups, investors learning from other investors, the media learning how the economy is changing, and so on, so this is a massive learning event for entrepreneurship,” says Viljakainen.
“It’s a learning process for our companies. In Russia and at Skolkovo, they are technology-driven, and not sales and marketing-driven, so you have to fail many times before you can succeed,” he said, adding that the quality of the companies taking part in the competition section of the event - and their presentations - were this year better than ever.
Viljakainen is better placed than anyone else to judge their quality, having overseen Skolkovo’s roving Startup Tour, held in 11 cities across Russia, as well as in Minsk and the Kazakh city of Almaty.
Startups and entrepreneurs compete in the Startup Tour in five categories: IT, energy and energy-efficient technologies, biological and medical technologies, industrial technologies and materials, and biotechnologies in agriculture and industry. Three winners are selected in each category, and those winners will now battle it out at the Startup Village for prizes of up to 3 million rubles ($46,000) and the chance to win Skolkovo residency status, which entitles the budding companies to a range of tax breaks, accelerator programmes and support, and access to grants.
“When I first did the Startup Tour four years ago, the quality differed between the cities and the regions,” said Viljakainen. “Some were great, some were not so developed – in the Dark Ages, so to say, of entrepreneurship. But this year, all the cities we visited performed pretty well,” he said, adding that this year’s winner “could come from anywhere, which is good.”
Viljakainen said he was particularly looking forward to the session immediately following the event’s grand opening on Thursday: a panel discussion titled “Tomorrow Came Today: 4th Industrial Revolution” that the Finnish entrepreneur himself will moderate. His interlocutors will include the prominent Russian-Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan, state banking giant Sberbank's CEO German Gref, and Philipp Rösler, managing director of the World Economic Forum and a former German vice-chancellor.
“I’m extremely happy that … the World Economic Forum is sending their managing director Philip Rösler here to make the keynote about the fourth industrial revolution, which is all about small companies, new ways of working, growth based not on big companies but on small technology companies,” said Viljakainen, adding that he is also delighted that “Mr. Gref, who has been a great thinker in Russian society on this issue,” is taking part.
The Finn, nicknamed The Bulldozer for his bullish efforts to develop a culture of entrepreneurship in Russia during the last few years, said the event is a truly international one, despite political tension between Russia and the West.
“I’m extremely happy to see that we’re doing cooperation with the U.S.-Russia business council,” said Viljakainen, adding that most of Moscow’s ambassadors and foreign trade representatives are also expected to attend the Startup Village.
“It’s a sign that Russia is not and does not want to be isolated, and our entrepreneurship community doesn’t want to be isolated from the rest of the world,” he said.
The Startup Village will take place on June 2-3 at the Skolkovo Innovation Centre. Visitors must register in advance. All the day’s events will be held in both English and Russian. A detailed programme and list of speakers and participants are available on the event’s website.