Building the Future of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology

Tinker. Reason. Experiment. Innovate.

Students from MIT and Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology explore what it takes to turn problems into opportunities for innovation.

Innovation. It’s a process. It’s not just a function of having new technology or a cool business plan. It’s a critical approach to solve real-world problems with technology and impact.

That’s the challenge more than three dozen students from Skoltech and MIT grappled with last month, in the second term Innovation Workshop. Led and designed by MIT colleagues Luis Perez-Breva and Charles Cooney and organized and hosted by the MIT Skoltech Initiative, the four-week workshop aimed to give 43 graduate-level students from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan and the United States the chance to work closely with MIT faculty and contributors from MIT's innovation ecosystem. Students are learning how to combine theory and practice with technology to solve real-world problems.

The participants worked seven days a week on a curriculum that consisted of hands-on projects, lectures and team-building activities, focused on three areas: Information, Energy and the newest addition, Biomedical Technologies. At the conclusion of the four weeks, each team was set to present its project to an audience made up of experts from MIT’s innovation ecosystem.

“Innovating requires behavioral change. This year students have taught us that we can reliably reproduce the experience we created last year, to effect the change in behavior needed to adopt innovation as a way of thinking,” said Dr. Perez-Breva, PhD, who conceived the workshop and directed both editions.

Participants in this year’s workshop were almost entirely made up of the second cohort of students attending the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a university established in 2011 on the outskirts of Moscow in collaboration with MIT. The university represents a new model for Russian higher education, with a central mission of combining fundamental science research with entrepreneurship, engaging industry and embedding commercialization impact in higher education.

In the first week of the workshop, participants tackled “quick success projects,” which got them accustomed to “playing” with technology. Students tamed a robot, restored the vision of a computer, and built a component of an electric car (among other things), all with minimal prior knowledge.

Teams were then given six problems requiring Energy, Information, and Biomedical approaches to choose from (“Energy Independence”l; “Energy Everywhere”; Healthy Anywhere”; “Smart Connected Environment”; “DNA Tsunami”; “Running Big Pharma from your Basement”; “Find That!”) and tasked with a goal for the next two -week period: prototype an innovation that solves one of these problems -- come up with something tangible (a technology prototype), something thorough (a report leading to concrete next steps), and something inspiring (a presentation). At the end of the two weeks, teams presented their innovation prototypes to faculty and members of the MIT community.

Alexandra Gorkina, a first-year Skoltech student, said a lot of the students were skeptical about the concept of learning innovation, but the workshop proved her wrong.

“It was not just a class: it was an experience which changed my way of thinking. I will certainly use my new knowledge in all projects I am involved in, both at the university and outside of it,” she said. “I am really excited to continue working on a project my team and I started during the workshop and see if we will manage to develop a product and a company.”

As part of the process, students were prepped with “starter” technology and impact kits: a readily available collection of inexpensive tools designed to reproduce the limited access to resources entrepreneurs and innovators may face. Workshop designers created an “Innovation Prototyping Lab “in which teams could meet anytime of the day, tinker with technology, and plan their fact-finding missions.

Students also visited Boston-area fledging technology startups and more mature technology companies from MIT's innovation ecosystem to experience firsthand how technology innovations evolve toward markets. Companies included Greenlight Biosciences, Arctic Sand Technologies, 7AC, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals and Applied Material’s Varian Semiconductor.

Nikita Rodichenko, a second-year master’s student at Skoltech said last year’s workshop “kick started” his first Skoltech year, which was spent primarily at MIT.

“The workshop was a mind- and eye-opening venture that also brought about a lot of knowledge and insight into latest technologies in IT and energy,” he says. “I never encountered such high concentrations of knowledge and diverse expertise in one place before.”

This year’s workshop was also the last edition to be held at MIT, said Dr. Luis-Preva, as the organizers transfer the experience to Skoltech next year, incorporating what they’ve learned to date.