About the project «Success Builder»
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
The airspace is becoming increasingly accessible to humans, thanks in part to HSE University graduate Alexander Atamanov and his flying motorcycles and cars. A graduate of the HSE University Master’s Programme in Corporate Research, Development and Innovation Management, he is not only an inventor and engineer but also the successful director of several startups. In this interview with Success Builder, he explains how to save inventors from the patent bureaucracy, what the Moscow authorities think about unmanned flights over the capital and why inventors prefer to test their flying cars themselves.
How did you become interested in engineering innovations — did you make things as a child and dream about becoming an inventor?
My parents are engineers, so my interest in the scientific process began at an early age. I assembled robots from whatever I found at hand and my father kept me supplied with materials. Making my machines became my passion, and it remains so now. During my professional development, I wanted to give some structure to my hobby, to understand how a creative initiative — whether an engineering invention or simply an idea — comes to life and gains popularity. I also began testing my organizational capabilities: I headed a sports team, inspired friends to experiment and associated with others who were also interested in technology. In this way, I developed two abilities — technical and managerial. This enabled me to create a startup during my first year: I have always worked only on my own ideas connected with inventions, creativity and innovation.
How did this passion of yours influence your choice of education?
Computers first appeared when I was seven years old. Of course, out of curiosity, I got into everything digital, assembled and disassembled computers, studied computer programs and helped younger school students master standard Microsoft applications. I was very good at it. The school took note of my achievements and offered me a scholarship at the Bonch-Bruevich St. Petersburg State University of Telecommunications (SUT) where I ended up earning my bachelor’s degree. During my studies, I created several startups and won awards from various national innovation competitions. At one such competition, Telecom Idea, I was awarded the opportunity to earn a master’s degree from HSE University in a program specifically related to innovation management, which was just what I needed.
What kinds of startups were they?
Working in my garage, I developed an apparatus for aerohydrodynamic surface cleaning — a device that enables you to clean stubborn dirt without violating the physical and chemical properties of the material. The main application for this technology is in aviation, where it can be used to clean turbines and combustion chambers. It is also effective at cleaning turbine equipment and thermal power plants, for the decontamination of radioactive surfaces and cleaning turbines and heat exchangers at nuclear power plants, so we managed to develop this business very successfully. I did the drawings, obtained the patents and set up the business processes myself. As a result, the project reached the point where we could sell franchises.
It was very interesting. Thanks to the SPENS project, I visited all of Russia’s major nuclear power plants, aviation enterprises and other unique facilities where our cleaning devices were used. In the process of making this invention a reality, I ran up against a serious problem — the protection of my ideas and the patent process itself, and this became the basis of my second successful startup. I understood that there is a huge demand for helping people obtain patents for their inventions. In the past, an engineer or scientist had to immerse themselves in a completely unfamiliar bureaucratic process, go to patent attorneys and banks, and gather various documents, statements and receipts. Why, if it was possible to automate the process and do everything online?
I created my Online Patent service specifically to simplify the patent process and make life easier for inventors. It started in the same garage. I hired a programmer, made an algorithm and tested the project out on some initial clients. Of course, I came up with the idea primarily for myself. There turned out to be a demand for the Online Patent service among my young scientist, inventor and startup friends at the time. My studies at HSE helped me to not only organize everything properly but also to find like-minded people who joined the project. For example, my fellow master’s programme student Alina Akinshina is still the head of Online Patent — Russia’s Number One service in terms of the number of patent applications it processes.
What is the main difficulty for an inventor who tries to sell or bring his creation to market?
The first challenge that most engineers and startups face is the need to create a patent application.
The difficulty is in using the official language required by the Russian Patent Office to explain exactly what you have invented
Communication between office employees and creative people is usually difficult, but you must communicate the concept of your project to the regulatory authorities. This is why we use our experience communicating with both parties to help write applications and translate them from the language of inventors into the language of patent officials. The second problem that inventors face is proving that their creation is unique and satisfies a need. If you created a bicycle, there is no guarantee that such an invention does not already exist. We search the databases of inventions and patents to find similar products, figure out a way around them, and then ensure that future inventions in the database do not violate your rights. This is a whole sector of the economy — the patent services market. It is an unknown for most inventors, and we have become the bridge that connects the fruit of engineers’ efforts with the market.
You already had experience with startups before you began your studies at HSE. What did you need to learn and what did the programme give you?
I was lacking a great deal of knowledge. I was like a blind kitten, running companies on intuition and bits of information. Thanks to HSE, I was able to make the processes in my companies systematic and transparent. After every class, I felt inspired and applied that knowledge in practice. It was extremely lucky that I had actual projects of my own at that time and that I could try out any new information or tool in action. In turn, I shared my startup experience with my instructors and classmates and my ‘field data’ was very useful for them. I was able to contribute to the educational process in this way because one day we would learn about a particular case or market process, and the next day I would come back and tell them how that had played out in an actual business.
What is different about running an innovation business?
You often have to work in a field with no competition. The problem is that the market does not yet understand the new product or service. You need to develop your idea and present it to potential customers. Even the principle of earning money is different here. Whereas a classic business focuses simply on earning a profit in a standard way, a different business model applies to innovations. A technology company can wait for years for profits, and then some company such as Philips buys it out for several million dollars. To achieve real success in the innovation business, you must be able to wait, — even though the technology market changes by the minute.
Because you are creating technology and not a product, it is a challenge to explain to investors exactly what the company is producing and how it will earn money. Most often, a major industrial partner will purchase the new technology. The company that did the R&D does not have the competency for reaching the market, managing sales and mass production and achieving economies of scale. This is an unfamiliar world for scientists and inventors. But they don't need to know it either — it is impossible to manage the entire cycle. That is what business partners are for, to handle the business processes.
At what stage should you look for such partners?
Finding a strategic industrial partner is a serious task that you need to prepare for at the patenting stage. Until then, someone can simply steal your idea. I had a situation like this with the Samsung R&D Center: I had been in a hurry with one of my unsuccessful startups for wireless smartphone chargers. Therefore, you need to first prepare a solid foundation for your technology in the form of patent protection, and only after that look for someone to whom you can sell it.
You are a resident of Skolkovo. What is this status and who receives it?
This status is granted to technology companies that defend their product before Skolkovo experts according to the Technology Park’s charter. Residency offers preferential taxation, customs privileges and salary options. I am grateful to Skolkovo for the opportunities it has provided. Above all, Skolkovo residency gives you a community, a place where creative people work hand in hand. Companies help each other and you are surrounded by like-minded people who are trying to change the world with the help of technology. We use the privileges of technological networking for various issues, ask our neighbours for help and thereby simplify many tasks.
For example, we share equipment and advice, help each other make decisions and generally overcome complex technological challenges. Skolkovo is very indulgent of our antics. It tolerates us testing various objects at its testing grounds and even helps us by providing security. We are currently testing our flying automobiles at Skolkovo. This is perhaps the only place in Russia that can provide such a microclimate for innovation.
What is a hoverbike and how did you create it?
It is a flying motorcycle based on drone technology. My father built light aircraft and I spent most of my weekends with him on the flying field. Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of making something that could fly. As soon as the patent landscape and technology made it possible, I immediately began building a flying motorcycle for myself — as an experiment. By that time, I already had startup experience and capital, and these made it possible to realize my dream of building the transportation of the future — first a flying motorcycle, and now a flying automobile.
Flying a hoverbike is like controlling a drone, except the object is several times larger. Ease of use is the invention’s key advantage. An algorithm is at the heart of drone flight: it is essentially a flying robot whose task is to fly from Point A to Point B. The beauty of the technology lies in the practically pilotless control and the ability to program the route. We are now working on a flying auto that is essentially the same as the flying motorcycle but with a much higher level of safety.
Although it is easy to control, is this use of the airspace legal? Are such flights permitted? If so, where can people fly to and on what?
All around the world, airspace is divided into zones. You cannot fly over airports, prisons, military bases, the Kremlin or any facilities that are off-limits to the public. A drone can pose a security threat by, for example, carrying explosives, etc. However, all other zones — the so-called ‘G zones’ — are open for ultralight aircraft such as hang gliders, paragliders and gliders. In such zones, you must notify the dispatcher that you will be flying in a certain space. Our bike was certified as an ultralight aircraft for such G zones — which are the most widespread — and flying it does not require a pilot’s license.
the weight of the hoverbike, that has a maximum speed of 96 km/h
Everything is much more complicated concerning the drone taxi concept and urban infrastructure. Engineers and urban planners around the world are struggling with this issue and several countries such as China and the UAE have taken the initiative to allow drone taxi flights for people at an altitude of 150 meters in certain areas. We are currently in talks with the Moscow government concerning legal rights for flying drones within the city limits. This gives us hope that Moscow will soon eliminate traffic jams and residents will effectively save their main resource — time.
How are the Moscow authorities reacting to your project?
Very positively. We are even negotiating the allocation of a test flight zone within Moscow to begin trial operations in unmanned mode. The second step will be to open certain routes, with the bikes flying over the river and sparsely populated parts of the city.
We also have our own pool of investors who help us with promotion. This subject is moving from the realm of science fiction into reality. The outlines of a completely new market are becoming clearer, and almost all major investment companies have expressed their confidence in it. The UAE plans to train an air police unit and is very interested in our hoverbikes. We conducted pilot training on our devices for Arab police officers in 2018.
Why was the UAE, in particular, receptive to the invention?
Dubai is a futuristic super-city that is trying to prove to the world that it is the most innovative. Abu Dhabi, in turn, became one of the first cities to permit taxi drones. Masdar, a ‘smart city’ and district of Abu Dhabi, has become the focal point of all of the world’s advanced technologies, and particularly the latest forms of unmanned transport such as podcars or PRT. The policies of the local authorities influence local technology investors. They are literally ‘vacuuming up’ ideas on a global scale and trying to implement them in the UAE. This includes everything from architecture to police robots and AI-based medicine: technology is the new oil for them. The state’s policy on innovation spurred interest in our project and is the reason they invited us to perform test flights there.
I saw your video showing the bike’s failed takeoff. Very frightening. How safe is this form of transport? Where do you find test pilots?
When the technology is brand new, it truly is unsafe. It is necessary to collect and analyze lots of data from all around the world to develop certain safety techniques and provide protection. Failures are normal in the beginning. They provide the necessary feedback to identify the technology's weak points so that others don’t make the same mistakes. That’s why I don’t hesitate to post videos of both successful and unsuccessful test flights in social networks as a contribution to the overall safety of unmanned flight.
The pilot in the failed test flight who remained alive and unharmed was I
By the way, all the algorithms for safety that are loaded into the bike’s system worked perfectly. We have now recruited professional test pilots, active and ambitious fellows who are ready to take risks for the sake of progress — especially because we’ve already tested the technology ourselves and can guarantee a certain degree of safety.
Why is all this happening in Russia and not in Silicon Valley?
We tried to establish ourselves there, but it didn’t work out. This has to do with the technology itself. The use of large drones intersects with military interests and, therefore, geopolitics. Technological projects with dual-use capabilities cannot receive approval and investment on ‘enemy territory.’ American startups in this field are financed and controlled exclusively by local investors or the state, and Chinese startups by Chinese, etc. because the technology is aimed at domestic use for defence purposes. This is a feature of the aerial device market. This is why we are implementing the project from Russia — and not only for Russia but also for Russia’s military partners such as the UAE, India and others.
Your experience is unique. Do you ever try to share it with others or teach?
I communicate a lot with students at technical schools — the Moscow Aviation University (MAU), Bauman Moscow State Technical University (BMSTU) and others. I encourage them to be inventive, launch startups and participate in innovation projects. I try to convince them to put their ideas into practice and not to hide behind excuses and stereotypes. As a result, many students have already followed my example. Some students from MAU and BMSTU, for example, are working on our HOVERSURF project. I like accepting invitations to speak to students. My mission is to focus students on pursuing entrepreneurship and not working their whole lives for some company such as Gazprom just so they can have a steady salary. However, I don’t see myself as becoming a teacher just yet: I have very little time — there are still mountains to move.