You may remember we launched this series way back in September 2012.  At that time, the Embassy launched a webpage and I drafted an initial blog laying out our vision which was to highlight innovation as a broad and underlying theme of U.S.-Russia cooperation.  

We said we wanted to facilitate connections, create opportunity, and share ideas on how to increase the competitiveness of our innovative communities. We hoped to use my residence, Spaso House, to create a core group of opinion makers/shapers, young people, entrepreneurs, and government officials who could use the series to deepen their connections with each other, with U.S. innovators and build a deeper knowledge of the innovation process.

So, how did we do? Looking back over the 9 months of the series, I’m pleased to say that we achieved many of our goals and in some cases, the outcomes surpassed our initial expectations.  

We used a variety of formats from large groups to smaller roundtables to discuss issues ranging from Russia’s entrepreneurial culture to the changing market for venture capital. Perhaps most meaningfully, we built a community of enthusiastic participants who often engaged with each other or our guest speaker long after the event ended.

Let’s review the series.  Moving effortlessly between a grand piano and a podium, our first speaker set the stage for us. In September with over 100 guests in the room, world-renowned innovation activist and consultant John Kao gave a lecture and used the piano to illustrate the connection between improvisational jazz and the innovation process. John continues to be active in Russia’s innovation scene and was a keynote speaker at the Open Innovations Forum in Moscow in early November.

Our second event in mid-November featured two speakers to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. We heard from Dr. Steffen Gackstatter, Monitor Group’s Project Director for Growth and Innovation, about Monitor’s evaluation of entrepreneurship worldwide.

The results revealed that Russians positively evaluated Russia’s policy supporting some of the basic tenets of entrepreneurship including supply of capital, entrepreneurship as a desirable career choice, favorable environment for start-ups, and support for individualist culture.

Following Dr. Gackstatter, the audience linked into a crystal clear real-time presentation by Cisco’s Chief Futurist Dave Evans, using Cisco’s teleconferencing technology. Evans presented his view of exponential growth and expansion in technology which he believes will lead to unprecedented advancement of the human race.

An engaged audience asked Evans about his predictions for the future of education, intellectual property protection, climate change and cloning.  Throughout his talk, Evans stressed two important ideas: there has never been a more exciting time to become an entrepreneur and it has never been easier to start your own business.

With technological advances of the future, Evans said the possibilities are virtually endless.  Following his provocative talk, we understand Dave gained many new Russian Twitter followers and friends on LinkedIn.

In late November, we changed our format to an informal, fire-side chat encouraging more discussion and interaction with the audience. We hosted our third speaker Dr. Pehong Chen, CEO of BroadVision.

Dr. Pehong Chen at Spaso House

Dr. Pehong Chen at Spaso House. Source: Michael McFaul

Dr. Chen described his vision for the future work place which entails a shift from “Enterprise 1.0” which is data-centric to “Enterprise 2.0” which is people-centric. Leveraging this new cloud computing-based reality, he said, means that companies can more freely outsource different processes and employees no longer need to be housed in one building but can be anywhere in the world.

In Enterprise 2.0, the default will be sharing information which will inevitably change some of our paradigms concerning the protection of intellectual property. During his visit, Dr. Chen met with several Russian companies about his vision (and his company’s products) which led to the signing of some significant business contracts.

Then, we took a break for the winter holidays and re-started our series in spring with Cassio Conceicao, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Silicon Graphics International.

Conceicao addressed many aspects of the Silicon Valley culture and ecosystem but one of the more unexpected elements for the audience was his observation that governments play a positive role in innovation development.

He noted the U.S. government subsidizes basic research and is often the first mover to discover new technologies which are later pushed out to the general public.  Some examples include the internet, and the Global Positioning System (GPS).

In the middle of May, we hosted Keith Teare, CEO and Founder of just.me Inc and a Founder at the Palo Alto incubator Archimedes for a talk on the changing nature of venture capital markets. He described a trend where venture capitalists are increasingly risk-averse, funding fewer projects and spending less money on each project.

Participants challenged some of his arguments noting that the cost of building an internet business continues to decrease and therefore requires less capital.  Keith agreed but added that bringing solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems should be the job of entrepreneurs and these big problems require patience and capital, both of which are in short supply right now in Silicon Valley.

In the end, he predicted it would only be a matter of time until the pendulum swung the other way and encouraged the audience (especially venture capitalists) to seize the opportunity.

And finally at the end of May, we changed the format again to host a roundtable discussion for Evan Burfield, serial entrepreneur and Founder of business incubator and accelerator 1776 DC. Having judged a start-up competition at Skolkovo’s Startup Village and having met start-ups in Moscow and St Petersburg, Evan shared his positive impressions of Russia’s start-up ecosystem.

He was surprised to learn the extent to which Russian start-ups are part of the global community and have implemented well-known start-up methodologies, and are conversant in all the latest literature from the community.

The one missing element appeared to be finding appropriate mentors for start-ups. To that end, Evan is exploring some online platforms and in addition, potential partnerships with start-up incubator Ingria in St Petersburg and innovative conference space Digital October in Moscow.

All in all, it was a tremendously informative series and I met a lot of interesting people working in the innovation space in Russia and learned a lot.  We are still thinking about new directions for this series for the fall. One idea might be innovation in education. If you have ideas, please send them to me at AmbMcFaul@gmail.com.

First published in Michael McFaul's blog.