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06 March 2013 -  Snapping at the leaders’ heels

Leaders among developing economies, BRICK countries (not to confuse with BRICS, which includes South Africa instead of South Korea) are catching up with the G7 countries in leaps and bounds in terms of innovations and research. In its study bearing a symbolic title “Building Bricks” published in February Thomson Reuters reports BRICK countries reducing a difference in research publications five-fold and cutting their lag in patent applications to a mere 20 percent since 1992. 

Although most of investment, scientific research and patent application has been taking place in China and South Korea, the study indicates that each of the five countries that make up the BRICK acronym have their own distinct area of specialization. In particular, South Korea is known for its research in material engineering and computer science; Brazil is especially good at agricultural and petroleum chemistry; India is leading the pack in pharmaceutical innovations whereas Russia is best at natural sciences such as physics, space research, geosciences and nucleonics.

Up until recently each of those countries has been working towards their goals in innovative research individually. However, in the past few years there has arisen a real possibility for joint action in this sphere, according to Maxim Kiselyov, head of development at the Skolkovo Technopark. Specializing in five innovation-heavy “clusters, namely IT, biomedical technologies, energy efficient technologies, nuclear physics and space technologies, the Skolkovo Innovation Center has already signed a number of partnership agreements with China’s Torch technopark, one of the largest in the country and Gyeonggi technopark (South Korea) . On top of that, late in 2012, Skolkovo researchers held negotiations with their Brazilian and Indian counterparts.

Not everything is going smoothly. “Working with the Chinese is a bit of a challenge because they want everyone to go there. They have no intention to send their startups to Russia for joint projects, partnership cooperation and the like,” Kiselyov said. He added that innovators are more than welcome in China, where they are given all the resources they need for their work. “I’ve seen the Harbin Institute of Technology campus and I’ve got to say it’s quite impressive. In my opinion, China is after new technologies, and in this respect its approach - attracting technologies and commercializing them - is the most pragmatic of all,” Kiselyov said.

Projects run by the Korean Gyeonggi technopark hold the greatest appeal to Skolkovo’s IT and space research clusters, and somewhat less so to its energy efficient technologies arm in the area of robotics. Currently working on setting up the so-called Titanium Valley, Russia is keen on Korea’s research on titanium and results of its advances in automotive industry, the two clusters that stand in close connection with development of efficient motors, one of Skolkovo’s areas of focus. 

On a visit to Moscow late last year accompanying their country’s president Mrs. Rousseff, Brazilian innovators were engrossed with results of Russia’s research and development in photovoltaics. “Brazil is currently building a large new airport as part of preparation for the FIFA World Football Cup, hence their interest in the new energy-saving technologies to glaze that huge structure. I'm working with them on this project right now,” Kiselyov said.

India is somewhat different from the rest as it is only beginning to establish links with Russia in terms of joint innovation research and development. “The Skolkovo Fund is yet to reach an agreement with the corresponding department within the Indian government. Nevertheless, we have participated in a big forum for innovations in India, which made it clear that biomedicine offers the biggest potential for cooperation to our companies. Indian pharmaceutical industry is one of the hottest in the country with massive demand for innovative solutions in pharmaceutics coming from its giant pharma corporations,” Kiselyov said.

Compared with China, where each province has a government-funded incubator for advanced technologies, most Russian projects get funding from venture investors, said Yelena Trofimova, head of the International Center for Innovation Development. These include businesses across numerous industries that require cutting-edge solutions and have cash to invest in research centers, mostly oil and gas companies, steel manufacturers and coal miners. Additionally, serious research is being done on sources of alternative energy, Trofimova said.

Information technologies are another area in which Russia is pursuing ambitious projects, in particular in data storage and processing, and prognostic analysis. What sets the IT industry apart is its growth in the near absence of state funding at about 15 to 20 percent each year with the Internet market currently exceeding 200 billion rubles and expanding at a rate of 25 – 30 percent a year, according to Narek Avakyan, a financial information analyst at Aforex. In conclusion, he said nanotechnologies, aviation, aerospace, chemicals and nuclear power engineering were among the most innovation-driven industries in Russia.

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