The University as a Center for Research and Business Innovation
At a recent meeting on the problems of applied research and innovative infrastructure development at the Higher School of Economics, the problems of the university’s development as a research center were considered. Leonid Gokhberg, First Vice Rector of the HSE, told us more about this issue.
— Dr. Gokhberg, at the meeting on the problems of applied research and innovative infrastructure development at the HSE it was told that the HSE has become one of the largest research centers among Russian universities. What does it mean?
— Research at the university over the recent years has developed in many directions including diversification, growth in the volume of research, growth in the number of research departments, attracting prominent Russian and international researchers to the HSE and establishing strategic academic partnerships in Russia and abroad. Specifically, in 2008 we had 25 research departments, but today there are over 40.
Diversification of research competencies today allows us to mobilize serious resources to implement large projects. Of course, research departments are not uniform: some of them have been growing successfully and are working well, while the others are just being formed as a united team; some of them have started just recently, and others are already experiencing some challenges leading to the necessity for structural changes.
Over the last two years, many new things have been introduced at the HSE. For example, we taken part in, and indeed, won some prestigious competitions, and in some cases we even overtaken competing technical universities: such as in contests for academic cooperation with companies, for innovative infrastructure development programmes and so on. In addition to this, the HSE has won three grants from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science to attract leading researchers.
At the same time, we need to understand that our capacity to increase the volume of research work within our existing framework is not limitless. We need to enter some new markets, involve some resources which have up to now not been fully exploited. An interesting fact: for example, the HSE is virtually absent from the programmes of the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Fund. But we don’t just have economists, but also philologists, philosophers, historians, psychologists and sociologists, and this potential should be used.
— What can you say about the customers of the research work?
— First of all, I’d like to say that over the last three years the total number of our customers has increased from 120 to 160, and the structure of research investment resources has considerably changed in favor of companies and regional institutions. We have started to actively create new strategic alliances. I would like to outline four areas of our focus here.
This includes interaction with some federal ministries and bodies which have not been our partners before.
Work with regional governmental bodies proved to be fruitful (and here the development of complex interdisciplinary projects is possible, for example, this year we participated in the development of regional strategies).
The HSE also successfully implements projects commissioned by companies from the real economy sector. In the last year we have started cooperating with some of the Russian economy’s colossuses. Today we have several framework agreements with the extremely large companies regarding cooperation in both the academic and educational spheres.
It’s the same story with leading universities. Few institutions have the opportunity to provide such complex support for universities as the HSE has (including foresight for the appropriate scientific and technological areas, recommendations on building development programmes, tools for strategic management, academic development and international positioning mechanisms and others).
So, in our interaction with customers we have entered a brand new level, where the HSE is ready to provide complex, ‘package’ offerings, including those based on cooperation and coordination between the research departments and departments of continuing education.
— In your view, what tasks should the HSE solve in order to maintain and improve its leading position in applied research?
— I’d like to point out three problems. The first is our external environment. As I’ve already said, an important direction here is cooperation with companies and local bodies, and here we often have very unusual and interesting research tasks. The second problem is the lack of premises, which considerably limits the opportunities for staff development, particularly in terms of attracting intern students (and there are many of them who want to work in leading research departments). And the final problem is building an effective system of stimulating the work of the research departments. I mean the solution of a multidimensional task – stimulating the growth of volume of research and stimulating the dynamics of these research projects – mastering new areas and staff development.
— Many colleagues say that faculties and research departments do not sufficiently support each other’s work. It is sometimes easier to find a professional from somewhere else to participate in an applied research project rather than one from an appropriate HSE faculty of department…
— We have not given up the task of more actively involving our teaching staff in research work, we acknowledge the potential of our colleagues, but also we have to take into account their existing workload in other projects. One of the problems here is that many professors are involved not only in consulting, but also in research on the external market. At the HSE they have access to a wide range of academic tools (which are rather expensive from the university’s point of view), but at the same time they work in many different places. I would not like to make any ethical evaluations here, but we need to understand the risks we face here.
— At a recent meeting you said that in order to expand the range of customers of research in the regions it is necessary to develop research work in the HSE’s regional branches.
— It is true that recently a very important phenomenon has appeared: public companies and local governmental bodies are officially referring to some universities in their documents as their research base. The future of our development in many Russian regions is certainly related to the development of our campuses in Saint Petersburg, Perm and Nizhny Novgorod. Today, honestly, the research situation in these branches in not particularly inspiring. We need to help them fix this situation. They have plenty of young people with good background and plenty of potential, but they need leaders to follow, they need to be included in our projects, to make the customers ‘get used to’ to them, and then to help them start acting independently. We can send our Moscow colleagues to these campuses, people who have experience of such work and can help improve things. They need to go there, create a system and then come back. At the same time, we shall get counteragents for our research departments whom we know and with whom we speak the same language.
— What are you planning to do in terms of developing international academic cooperation and increasing the participation in grant programmes?
— At the end of the last year we introduced a practice of supplementing research projects from the university’s funds. This support is given to the projects which have insufficient budgets to participate in special events and cooperate with international colleagues. As a result, our staff can participate in different meetings of international research consortiums and expert groups in international organizations.
In terms of participation in academic funds’ programmes, including the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Fund and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, again we face the same problem of motivation. Probably we should come back to what we discussed before: sometimes the allocation of funds for fundamental studies can be connected with the external grant activity of the project participants. I do not see anything wrong in this – all Western universities do this. We can give an expert evaluation of what fundamental research projects can be transferred to external grant programmes, and suggest that our colleagues apply for them first. If you win – we shall support you, if you don’t win – we’ll see, probably we shall support you anyway. This is also a problem of a certain quality filter for university grants’ allocation.
— Another topic which was thoroughly discussed at the recent meeting is innovative activity at the university…
— Yes, here we have two key tasks, and now we are actively working on them. First, the creation of an internal system of organizing innovative projects. Second, external activity related to the development of innovative entrepreneurship supported by the university. By the way, the very effective HSE Business Incubator – and I was surprised to learn this – was the first university business incubator in Russia.
I’d like to remind you that the HSE was the only socio-economic university to win the contest of university innovative infrastructure development programmes, and over the 18 months since then, we have done a great deal. All the key tools have been created to develop innovative activity, we have a detailed business model for creating small enterprises supported by the HSE. We have made a decision to create a 100% subsidiary innovative center. We have developed a commercial secret regime, and formed an intellectual property rights policy, which is currently being drafted and will be released soon. We have prepared applications for 23 objects of intellectual property, including our websites, data bases, research methods etc.
We have launched a system of contests for innovative projects – today we support 35 projects from over 100 which entered these contests. We have created a system of expertise which will be expanded. We have already had three commercial projects from the innovation center; we have found several potential partners to create joint companies.
Speaking about innovative entrepreneurship, we have created a network in Moscow and regional branches involving about 10,000 people who participate in various events. Here there are two key trends: offering services for innovative startup business development and expanding the opportunities available for young researchers and entrepreneurs in innovative projects. In the first case, I mean the launch of a special service within the HSE Business Incubator which is also available for startups from other regions. In the second case this is the ongoing introduction of new forms of entrepreneurship education. Particularly, we have organized an inter-faculty minor which unites students from various specializations and levels of education in real projects. There is a large demand for this form of participation: the first enrolment attracted over 100 people. This year a new fee-paying master’s programme in innovation management will be launched. It is aimed at future ‘intrapreneurs’ – employees of large companies, who organize the processes of new product development and marketing. Of course, we are expanding the schedule of training programmes for innovative entrepreneurs, including those organized in cooperation with international partners. Many formats of the innovative project organization which were first launched by the HSE Business Incubator, are today widely used in the Russian innovative system and have been implemented in other universities.
— What limitations could the HSE face and what will be its potential competitive advantage in this area?
— One of the limitations is the lack of quality in the commercial project offerings from students and staff – the university has not yet adapted to this. This means that it is essential to develop a system for producing these projects. Generally, 2012 will be a decisive year for the innovative infrastructure development programme at the HSE: we need to form a model of sustainable development for innovative activity and move to the next level of quality. In order to do this, we need to do at least three vital things. Firstly, to create a mechanism of promoting innovative developments, and here the HSE has a unique advantage, since we have outstanding socio-economic and managerial competencies. In addition to this, we have created a very powerful partner network with leading Western universities.
Secondly, it is necessary to organize our own system of business expertise, which can be offered for certain large players. And finally, we need to integrate all those HSE departments which participate in innovations into a unified network. So, the key decision is whether we continue considering innovative activity as a rather small internal sector of the university, or we try to position the HSE as a large university business innovation center. This is a serious choice which means not only the transfer to another level of revenues, but another scale of activity, bringing with it all the associated challenges and risks.
Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service