A large part of the Skolkovo innovations ecosystem is preparing to head north to Russia’s second city this week for the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), which takes place on May 24-26.

Skolkovo startups and foundation representatives will be out in force at this year's SPIEF. Photo: SPIEF.

More than 20 of the foundation’s resident tech startups are exhibiting their inventions at various stands around the forum, while senior figures from the foundation are taking part in panel sessions. This year, the Skolkovo Foundation has organised two sessions at the forum, titled “What Will the World Look Like in 20 Years?” and “Life Science 2030: a New Era in Biotechnology.”

The first of those sessions will focus on what we can expect everyday aspects of life such as transport, medicine and finances to look like in 20 years’ time. Ahead of the session on May 25, in which Skolkovo senior vice president for innovations Kirill Kaem will speak, a survey was conducted among both Skolkovo residents and readers of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper to see how they envision the future.

The other Skolkovo session will bring together foreign and Russian experts with Russian government officials in an attempt to formulate an actionable mechanism for transforming Russia, which currently only accounts for about one percent of the global biotech market, into a significant player in this sector.

The discussion on the morning of May 26 – the final day of the forum – will focus on both the pharmaceutical sector and agricultural biotech, and the increasing overlap between those areas, says Roman Kulikov, acceleration director for agrotech projects within Skolkovo’s biomed cluster.

Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg will speak at several of the event's sessions. Photo: Sk.ru.

“In the last 20 years, the biotech sector has undergone a revolutionary transformation, but in the next couple of decades it will change even more dramatically, primarily to do with its biologisation,” predicts Kulikov.

“Humankind has long used chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and in light of the harm they can cause, many companies, both in Russia and around the world, are moving over to bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides,” he said.

“They contain strains of special microorganisms that are safe for humans and which are used on plants and animals to protect them from certain kinds of disease. For example, the microbes are dusted onto granules of traditional fertilizer. When they enter the soil and come into contact with water, these microbes begin to multiply, and ingesting the fertilizer to which they were applied, turn it into a form that suits the plant,” explained Kulikov.

“It’s exactly the same with pesticides. Researchers are already creating microorganisms which, if the plant becomes ill, begin to produce stimulators in the plant that activates its defence system. Amid this wave of discoveries in biology and genetics, an increasingly promising field is the idea of cultivating proteins essential for the treatment of a specific patient by introducing them into plants. This is a highly complex biological chain in which it’s increasingly difficult to separate the medical part from the agricultural part,” said Kulikov.

Skolkovo's Kirill Kaem will speak at a session organised by Skolkovo and titled "What Will the World Look Like in 20 Years?" Photo: Sk.ru.

Together with co-organizer and fellow biomed cluster acceleration director Kamila Zarubina, Kulikov said he had sought to put together a panel of speakers who could talk about different countries that are either currently seeing success in this area, such as Singapore, South Korea, Israel, Brazil, Argentina and China, or have already achieved results, such as Japan, Germany and the U.S. Those speakers include Meir Pugatch, a professor at the University of Haifa, Israel, and Joerg Mueller, head of global development at Bayer AG. The panel session aims at identifying the drivers of biotech, and what factors are needed to make Russia a key player in this industry. Representing Skolkovo in the discussion will be Igor Drozdov, chairman of the board of the Skolkovo Foundation.

Participants will also discuss changing intellectual property rights, ethical issues, and how to preserve the balance amid growing R&D costs and spending cuts by the state on healthcare and agriculture.

“What’s interesting right now is that in an attempt to reduce spending on expensive R&D, major corporations are choosing to cooperate with each other,” said Zarubina.

“And this process is unfolding against the backdrop of significant changes in global healthcare: medicine is becoming more and more personalized, and the state is trying to push more and more of the costs onto the public,” she said, adding that SPIEF was the perfect place to discuss issues related to the present and future of the Russian and global biotech markets.  

Skolkovo residents will also be out in force at the forum, including several agrotech companies. Agronote, an app for digitalizing processes related to growing crops, will demonstrate its system at the stand of its partner company, SAP, while several other startups will be presented on the stand of the Russian Export Centre.

They include Fungipack, which makes bioinsecticides that have a prolonged effect thanks to protective microcontainers; Nanobiotech, which uses the anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties of silver to combat phytopathogens (plant parasites); and AgroDroneGroup, which uses drones and computer software to monitor the condition of crops and soil. AgroDroneGroup raised $440,000 in investment from the Russian-Belarusian Venture Investment Fund (RBFVI) earlier this year.

Another 13 residents will present their products and solutions at the Territory of Innovations, a stand and meeting place being jointly run by Roscongress, the Foundation for the Development of Internet Initiatives and Skolkovo.

The annual economic forum is attended by thousands of delegates from all over the world, including politicians. Photo: SPIEF.

Senior representatives of the Skolkovo Foundation are also playing an active role in the forum’s discussion sessions, including Skolkovo president Victor Vekselberg and Skolkovo Ventures CEO Vasily Belov. Vekselberg will take part in a session titled “Russia and the U.S.,” sharing the stage with speakers including Bertrand-Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, which has a state-of-the-art R&D and training centre at Skolkovo, and Matthias Berninger, vice president of Mars Incorporated.

Vekselberg will also speak at a session titled “Digitalisation: a driver of growth and inclusive development” together with Cees ’t Hart, president and CEO of Carlsberg, and others.

Skolkovo’s Kaem will take part in a business dialogue between Russia and Israel, as well as in a panel session titled “New Tech Leaders. Entering the Global Market,” joining Alexander Khanin, the CEO of Skolkovo resident company VisionLabs.

The St. Petersburg forum will also host a ceremony attended by Vekselberg and St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko at which the city will officially be given the status of a Skolkovo regional operator. The status means that hi-tech startups in St. Petersburg can make use of the same services and opportunities as residents of the Skolkovo Technopark, without having to relocate to Moscow. Cities including Perm and Yekaterinburg have also been designated regional operators.

The session “Life Science 2030: a New Era in Biotechnology” can be watched live on the forum's website here