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Snowbound Siberian Outpost Aims for Silicon-Valley Status

As Russia feels the effects of Western sanctions, it’s hoping to buoy the economy by kickstarting its fledgling tech industry.
Tomsk — historically a bustling university town — has the advantage of being home to some of Russia’s best programs in science and technology.
Tomsk — historically a bustling university town — has the advantage of being home to some of Russia’s best programs in science and technology.Dan Peleschuk / GlobalPost

TOMSK, Russia — If there were ever a place for a cutting-edge innovation hub, this snowbound Siberian outpost with a population of 500,000 probably wouldn’t be the first choice.

Deep in the Russian hinterland, it stands at the dead end of a train line off the Trans-Siberian railway. Its airport services only Moscow, a few other Russian cities and a small handful of foreign charter flights. Local business isn’t exactly booming. It does have one thing, however: smart people, lots of them.

As Russia feels the effects of Western sanctions, it’s hoping to buoy the economy by kickstarting its fledgling tech industry. That includes a government project to create what it calls a Russian Silicon Valley in a suburb outside Moscow.

But some 1,900 miles to the east, Tomsk — historically a bustling university town — has the advantage of being home to some of Russia’s best programs in science and technology, which regularly churn out first-class graduates. One in five residents here is a student.

Officials are trying to capitalize on that to cement this bookish city as a regional powerhouse for innovation and economic growth. It’s not the worst idea, observers say. If only the region were less remote and better developed.

“And so it turns out that cadres are raised here, and those cadres quietly hit the road,” says Elena Fatkulina, a local journalist.

Starting with fur traders who first ventured into Siberia centuries ago, Russia has a long history of trying to develop the far-flung regions that make up its vast heartland, usually against tall odds. Under communism, the Soviets built a network of sprawling, bland cities across Siberia to bolster heavy industry and oil and gas production.

Now, officials here in the Tomsk region — about 600 miles north of where the Kazakh, Chinese and Mongolian borders meet — are taking a more modern approach. With a long-term strategy called INO Tomsk 2020, they’re hoping to harness the local population’s intellectual capital to attract investment and cultivate a robust start-up climate that would contribute to the regional economy.

Andrey Antonov, deputy governor for economics, says the plan — originally approved in 2011 — aims to tap into the “knowledge economy” to boost local industrial and commercial capacity.

“We need to direct our research and development and our educational institutions toward programs of import substitution,” he said in an interview.

That’s especially important now, since the price of oil — Russia’s economic lifeblood — is gradually slipping amid a general economic downturn. At a cost of around $4.5 billion, Tomsk’s project is slated to create the economic, social and logistical infrastructure necessary to make that possible. That means everything from developing new campuses and building regional transport links to wrangling support from major state corporations.

Fortunately, officials have a strong starting point. Tomsk is already something of an anomaly in resource-rich Siberia: teeming with human capital, it’s home to scores of local start-ups and an IT sector that’s the region’s second largest. With its imperial charm and elegant gingerbread-style houses, it’s also not your average dreary urban jungle.

“It’s not some city in the mud that sprang up during the Soviet era where you can’t do anything but extract oil and then leave quickly,” says Fatkulina, chief editor of the Tomsk Review, an online news site.

A key element of the development strategy is a special economic zone — an expansive, purpose-built site that offers office space and tax benefits to entrepreneurs interested in growing their businesses.

Launched in 2009, the area is home to 59 resident companies, around two-thirds of which are in the IT sector. According to Konstantin Kaminsky, the zone’s acting general director, one in five companies is at least partly foreign-financed, but all companies here must be registered in Tomsk, once a closed city during the Soviet era.

"We understand that we're not Singapore or Hong Kong"

Kaminsky prefers to remain realistic about the area’s potential.

“We understand that we’re not Singapore or Hong Kong, points that are located at the crossroads of trade routes and which naturally see a flow of workforce and investment,” he says. But he adds that the zone is ideal for local students and young researchers already involved in blossoming projects and looking for a leg up, especially from keen investors.

“The economy of our scientific-education complex is no less interesting than the extraction of mineral resources,” Kaminsky says.

Whether they’ll actually come is another question. The high quality of the local universities — which include Tomsk State University (TSU) and Tomsk Polytechnic University — enables their graduates to set their sights on Moscow or even abroad. It’s not unusual for alumni to end up at Microsoft, Google or Facebook, locals say.

TSU, Siberia’s oldest university and the largest of six major institutions here, offers many double-degree and exchange programs with foreign universities. It’s also looking to boost its international profile.

While that may be good for the students, it’s also why many of them don’t return here after their studies, says Diana Kozikova, a project manager at TSU.

Her project aims to stem the drain by advising students and would-be entrepreneurs about how to start their own businesses here, partly by inviting foreign experts. It's part of a small network of business incubators here that grooms future cadres for careers in innovation. But it's a difficult task, she says, not least because her project is still in its infancy and traveling is easier than ever.

“At the moment, there are many opportunities beyond Tomsk that students take advantage of freely,” Kozikova says.

Russia’s increasing isolation in the world may also be a motivating factor, at least for those who choose to move abroad. The educated, often liberal-minded classes have invariably been the first to leave during what’s shaping up to be one of Russia’s worst brain drains since the fall of the Soviet Union. More than 200,000 Russians emigrated in the first eight months of 2014, official statistics show — more than any previous year during Putin’s 14-year reign.

Politics aside, some local entrepreneurs say Tomsk’s relative remoteness contributes to the sluggish growth of business.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have internet or that we can’t make telephone calls,” jokes Roman Malakhov, a 33-year-old software programmer. But he adds that many of his peers have left Tomsk, thanks partly to a lack of local capital and access to markets. Although he’s based here, Malakhov started his first company — Zoom, a software start-up — from Moscow.

Still, he cautiously commends local officials for having a plan to develop the region. Others agree that attempts to fashion the region into an innovation hub aren’t entirely unrealistic.

Fatkulina, the journalist, credits the local authorities with boosting the city’s profile in recent years. It’s up to them to finish the job and convince people to stay, she adds.

At the very least, it’s not nearby Omsk, which has the unfortunate reputation among Russians as being a downtrodden backwater.

“People have stopped confusing the two now,” Fatkulina says with a smirk.

This article first appeared on GlobalPost.

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