Urals embrace business parks

August 22, 1997

University leaders in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg saw the writing on the wall in the dying days of the Soviet Union and began freeing faculty deans to pursue commercial ventures.

Seven universities and technical institutes in Ekaterinburg and the surrounding region are partners in the Urals Regional Scientific Technical Park under the leadership of the Urals State Technical University, Boris Yeltsin's alma mater.

More than 40 university-developed businesses operate on USTU's Ekaterinburg city centre campus, contributing more than Pounds 2 million annually to college coffers in addition to the state budget of Pounds 6.3 million. Over 1,500 new jobs have been created in the past four years and academic staff who might have otherwise left to pursue unrelated money-earning opportunities in the private sector have stayed.

The concept of a science park in the European and American tradition followed the creation of the first small business by some five years: a regional government decree last year formally created the entity and a technical park headquarters with representative offices of member firms is due to open in January.

This does not stop the Urals academic entrepreneurs from claiming they were the first in Russia to develop the commercial potential of their research within a science park and they only grudgingly concede to Moscow State University the status of a larger similar organisation.

Universities in the Urals always had close commercial and technical links with industry and during Soviet times trained entire workforces for the region's massive industrial plants, such as the famous Uralmash machine tool factory in Ekaterinburg. The signs of communism's collapse were already evident before one-time regional party boss Boris Yeltsin's historic clash with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in the summer of 1991.

Vsevolod Kortov, USTU's first pro rector, himself involved in the development and production of radiation sensors sold throughoutRussia and Eastern Europe, recalls the sense of urgency to stay one step ahead of a disintegrating system.

"We had seen the dangers coming and by 1991 could predict the decrease in the number of contracts with state industrial enterprises.," he says. "This is why we began to develop small enterprises within the university itself. We encouraged chairs of faculties who already had some ready-made scientific designs for industry to found small businesses and begin manufacturing products within the university."

Today more than 100 different products, ranging from building materials through precision- engineered special alloy components, polymer fibre sails for yachts and medical lasers, to specialist organic chemical analysis services, are sold through faculty-based and off-campus businesses involved in the technology park.

Legal agreements ensure the university receives a cut from product development and sales through intellectual property licensing, and businesses using university premises pay rent and service charges. In return academics are paid commercial rates, which, in some cases, more than double their university salaries.

The technical park has education ministry backing, which provides annual business development grants of more than Pounds 200,000 on the condition that an element of the commercial benefits from small enterprises must be ploughed back into faculty development. Businesses benefit from marketing, training and public relations support through the Urals Business Innovation Centre and "UPI Twenty-One", the technical park's business association, whose initials recall the old name for the university, the Urals Polytechnical Institute.

Warwick University, home to one of Britain's leading university business parks, has been helping to develop an overall business plan. Last May, a team from the Urals visited Warwick during a tour of British university science parks.

Reinventing Urals universities as centres for technical and commercial development has been critical to their survival during a period of unprecedented collapse in Russian academia, Professor Kortov says.

"We've conserved highly qualified technical staff and are ready to double or triple our activity if the Russian economy revives."

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