UMNIK program (the abbreviation stands for ‘Youth Science and Innovation Competition Participant’ in Russian) is sponsored by the Foundation for Small Business Support in the Science and Technology Sphere, also known as the Bortnik Fund. The first contest was held in 2007. Accredited colleges, institutes, and other organizations offer their premises for the contest twice a year in spring and autumn. This year, Skoltech welcomed UMNIK autumn finals for the first time.
‘Having UMNIK in Skoltech is an important cornerstone event for the institute,’ – says Igor Seleznev, Innovations and Technology Transfer Director at Skoltech’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. – ‘The Fund trusted Skoltech to host the contest, which signals recognition for our capability to involve gifted participants and a competent professional panel. As well as Skoltech’s representatives, we see people from other colleges among the participants. This is also important for us, because it lets us to compare the quality of the projects; such diversity facilitates openness and transparence, furthering the credibility of the hosting venue and the competition itself.’
UMNIK offers two-year funding for scientific endeavors to help them reach commercial applications. Usual volume of funding over this term amounts to 400,000 RUR (approx. 6,000 USD). The main goal of the program is to approach young scientists, aiming to prove themselves by their innovations. Another important aspect is wider involvement of youth in scientific and innovative activities that is made possible by funding and supporting innovative projects.
‘Skoltech’s alumni must be capable of obtaining funding for their projects,’ – says Dmitry Pebalk, Skoltech Innovation Program manager. – ‘UMNIK is a unique chance to verify their ideas and provide staging grounds for a future start-up company. This is their first and very important attempt at fund raising, not directly involved with our own offerings.’
Anybody from 18 to 28 can participate. Usually these are students, postgraduates, and young researchers, selected during the program’s preliminary stages. Every year about 1,000 projects are selected all over the country. The number of awards is not strictly limited, but instead depends on the qualities of each project and the participants’ ability to pitch.
‘For six years already I am working with the Bortnik Fund and UMNIK. I think this is a very important contest, because it allows young innovators to obtain funds very early, to grow into them, as some might notice,’ – says Professor Konstantin Severinov, director of Center for Data-Intensive Biotechnology and Biomedicine. – ‘I think that Skoltech’s and Bortnik Fund’s programs have very much in common, because we both understand that the final goal is proliferation of science-driven innovations by young researchers. Without delving into the details of projects presented today, I’d like to note that on the whole Skoltech’s students are presenting their projects much better than the contestants from other colleges and academic institutes. The reason is that Skoltech’s students are better at understanding the importance of “packaging” the project, the pitch. This is a very useful skill that Skoltech offers.’
According to the Fund’s representative, Skoltech’s experts were very active at creating a friendly and competitive environment of discussion and commentary. ‘Live discussion, arguments, and conversations were not only very helpful in achieving a relevant estimate of the projects’ respective qualities, but also for participants’ education,’ – says one of the organizers, Anna Sorokina, representative of Skoltech’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. – ‘Even those who weren’t awarded gained new knowledge and found areas for improvement in their work that are required for commercial success.’
Between 21 participants of the UMNIK’s autumn finals, 11 prizes were awarded in the following categories: future healthcare, modern materials and their manufacturing, new instruments, hardware appliances, and biotechnologies.
‘Participation in the contest broadens the students’ reach during the pre-seeding stage, gives them the opportunity to compare their ideas to others, gain useful insights from experts during the finals, and possibly win,’ – says Igor Seleznev. – ‘I’m grateful to all the participants and experts for their input and effort. Now we aim to make Skoltech not only a regular, but also a most high-profile venue for the contest. We consider holding the next round in even more productive manner, making Skoltech the best site in Moscow. We will definitely continue with the contest in Skoltech.’
Prepared by: Anna Shimanskaya
Photos: Anna Shimanskaya, Alexander Zolotarev