The proximity of Vladivostok to Asia is palpable throughout the port city in Russia’s Far East, from the abundance of right-hand drive cars imported from Japan – a growing number of them electric – and currency exchange points displaying rates for yuan and yen to Chinese-language signs and groups of Chinese and South Korean tourists at hotels, restaurants and city sights.

Vladivostok can use its location close to China, Korea and Japan to its advantage, experts agree. Photo: Sk.ru.

The city’s location on the Sea of Japan, close to Russia’s borders with China and North Korea and across the water from Japan, is the key to its economic development, said experts gathered at the three-day Russky MeetUp, an IT forum hosted by the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFA) on Vladivostok’s Russky Island this week.

“Vladivostok has a very interesting mission,” said Roman Povolotsky, head of Cyber Russia, a federal educational programme aimed at training professionals and creating startups in the development of computer games with the use of blockchain and virtual and augmented reality.

“The city’s access to an open port determines certain economic currents that can and should be used. In the next 10 years, we will see a serious amalgamation of the information and economic centre in Asia. If for the last 20 years, the centre was in Europe and the U.S., now China is undeniably becoming the biggest economic empire in the world, and the economies that begin to revolve around China will do well,” said Povolotsky, addressing a session at Russky MeetUp on Tuesday titled “The Far East as an entry point for innovations to Asia Pacific markets.”

Vladivostok has the potential to become such an entry point for startups and companies from across Russia, he said, adding that Cyber Russia was ready to help in bringing startups to the city that are ready to expand to Asia.

“We can make Vladivostok a centre of Asia,” said Povolotsky. 

Roman Povolotsky (right), says Vladivostok can become a launch pad for Russian startups seeking to enter the markets of Asia Pacific. Photo: Sk.ru.

One of the aims of Russky MeetUp was to encourage local programmers and IT specialists to remain in the region by showcasing the opportunities available, as the Far East is currently experiencing a brain drain to other parts of Russia and abroad.

“We should stop exporting human capital,” said Povolotsky, echoing earlier speakers at the Russky MeetUp.

“We have good programmers and the opportunity to test their solutions at our companies, which don’t differ much from companies around the world. We should apply those solutions here and we should export them,” he said, adding that there is currently no Russian structure working specifically on exporting software, one of Russia’s greatest assets.

Vladivostok is at least as much of an entry point to Russia for Chinese companies as it is a launch pad to Asia for Russian companies, one audience member was quick to point out, and another aim of Russky MeetUp was to be a meeting place for developers and investors from across the Asia Pacific region. This year, some Asian investors and speakers who had been due to attend the forum were ultimately unable to do so because of several major events currently taking place across the region, not least the Chinese Communist Party congress that finished this week, said Ilya Mirin, head of Skolkovo’s Far East representative office, which co-organised Russky MeetUp, adding that the organisers would take that factor into account when planning future events.

“Russky MeetUp is good counterpart to the more formal Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), and has seen healthy interest from Skolkovo startups,” said Mirin, whose office is located inside the sparkling new campus of FEFA, a close partner that also hosts the annual EEF. 

Ilya Mirin, head of Skolkovo's Far East representative office. Photo: Sk.ru.

“We try to pass on the wealth of experience the Skolkovo Foundation has accumulated to colleagues from friendly organisations: we’re developing the [innovations] ecosystem,” said Mirin. “We also know what’s in demand here and share that information with other regions.”

Skolkovo’s Far Eastern office opened in 2015, and now has about 40 resident startups from across the region. Last month, Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg opened a brand new technopark at FEFA that offers local startups the same key services available to residents of the main Skolkovo Technopark in Moscow.

Representatives of some of the regional startups were taking part in the forum, such as Softvelum, which makes products for building video and audio streaming infrastructure, and has users in more than 100 countries. Alexander Pokotilo, CTO at Softvelum, gave a lecture at the forum on developing and selling IT products.

Skolkovo’s participation was not limited to regional startups, however. Representatives of the Moscow-based Skolkovo startups Uniteller, which simplifies payment systems, and Neuroseti Ashmanova, which makes apps and services based on neural networks, also gave talks at the event.

Uniteller was also on the lookout for local projects that might be able to use its payment solutions, as well as for local banks who could help with that process, and potential partners who could help the company enter new markets, both in the Far East and in the Asia Pacific region, Dmitry Lemachko, director of payment solution sales at Uniteller, told Sk.ru.

While Uniteller’s mother company sells payment systems to business, its Skolkovo spinoff has developed a ready solution that can be integrated with any equipment or payment machine, including foreign machines that usually don’t automatically work with Russian payment systems, said Lemachko.

The company’s solutions are already used for a wide range of paid services, such as parking, toll roads, public transport (including the St. Petersburg metro), ticket sales, charity donations and for state services, such as to pay fines. The company’s technology is available to visitors to the Oceanarium on Russky Island, not far from where the IT forum was being held, and at the hotel of FEFU itself, as well as abroad, including in Nigeria and Kazakhstan, said Lemachko.

In addition to three days of conference sessions devoted to topics including cybersecurity, blockchain, VR/AR, robotics and IT entrepreneurship, Russky MeetUp also included a series of Science Slam battles and an exhibition of tech products and solutions, in which several Skolkovo companies took part, including Uniteller and Robbo, the maker of educational kits that enable children to create smart devices.