After finishing his undergraduate degree with honours from the Higher School of Economics in 2013, Rolich received his master’s from the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM) in 2015 and became a post-graduate student at the institute the same year.
He received a Russian Presidential Scholarship in 2014, and in 2015 was awarded a scholarship from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation. Rolich has won seven grants and has over 18 certificates from various exhibitions and competitions. He teaches in MIEM laboratories, is the head of the 3D Visualization Laboratory and is the founder of the Public Charger project.
«It’s obvious a scientist can make money in the sphere of innovations»
About the project
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.
Science had already moved into the sphere of consumption in the 20th century, and we now treat technological innovation as if it’s simply a new item on a restaurant menu or the premier of the latest blockbuster film. Science works for everyone personally, and this ‘scientific marketing’ is the merit of new-era scientists – the ‘Steve Jobses’ who are capable of not only inventing, but also selling their inventions. Alexey Rolich, who is a graduate of HSE MIEM, the head of the 3D Visualization Laboratory, and the creator of the Public Charger project, which has received an UMNIK grant, tells Success Builder how to make money in science.
How did your scientific career begin?
I got involved with science rather late – in my fifth year at MIEM. At the time, I was working on something that ended up turning into a fully-fledged scientific project. But working quietly and just for yourself isn’t really my thing, and I went to the Open Innovations forum to present one of my project outlines. I had to present in front of serious people like Chubais, which boosted my confidence and gave me the desire to be convincing. A lot of engineers have problems talking to people; they’re introverts, spherical horses in a vacuum as we say, who do things for themselves to grow and cultivate their skills, but are unable to talk about these things, let alone sell their ideas.
There’s a stereotype that engineers are intelligent sociophobes who like mountains. Is that true?
It depends on the profession. The thing is, it’s the engineer’s job to work not only with their head, but also with their hands. With this applied experience, it’s hard for engineers to pass the philosophy section of post-graduate entrance exams. Philosophy runs counter to the engineer’s practical perception of reality. This is why engineers might not have a lot of experience with emotional or social activities. This holds true for a lot of scientists too. But I think that we need to break away from this stereotype. The engineer needs to be able to do more than just solder metal or write programmes. The engineer must above all be erudite. They need to have some knowledge of philosophy, history, economics, and sociology in order to understand how ethical their developments are. And this is arguably one of the most important things in modern-day science.
So if someone invents something, how can you envision the project in the future and paint a picture of how it might be sold?
It’s necessary to read about economics, especially about business modelling. My understanding of the applied side of things comes from observation – from seeing colleagues’ projects and trying to apply them to my own situation. I also talked to older people with more experience. At the same time, I tried to learn more about economics, management, marketing, etc., and I fortunately found support at HSE. Master’s students from the Economics Faculty wrote me and suggested using my financial metric for their thesis work. It was great. The more people – sociologists, economists, entrepreneurs – who contribute their ideas to a project, the less likely you are to fail in presentation.
Was the Public Charger project initially envisioned as a way of receiving a grant?
It was a coincidence. I started going everywhere, making suggestions, and I started creating the Public Charger ‘brand.’ Everyone would smile when I’d start telling the story from a technical standpoint before finishing with everyday terminology like an urban activist. It turned out that this is a good way of getting the public interested. Even if your project or presentation format brings about a mixed reaction, any type of emotion and its commercialization is considered 21st century marketing.
is the monthly stipend students receive under the Russian Presidential Scholarship. The scholarship is paid to students under the age of 35 for a period of three years.
How does one train for academic competitions?
When you’re developing something, you really want to implement it, and these kinds of events are a way of doing that. My first successful competition was for the UMNIK grant from the Foundation for Assistance to Small Innovative Enterprises. The grant was for the Public Charger project [the project allows you to charge your iPhone or laptop in locations such as subway stations and other means of public transport]. But you have to prove that you want to do something important, and this requires you to prepare for a competition using a special methodology. The whole laboratory helped one another prepare; we would look at the projects we had, make selections, deal with financial issues in implementation, and figure out how to sell the product. By the way, I wasn’t successful my first time, but this didn’t get me down. It just prepared me for the next competition. It was really interesting to look at others’ projects – projects created by scientists ranging from doctors and chemists to IT experts – and to see expert evaluations of the projects. To a certain extent, you yourself become an expert and you see the problem areas in the cases, which is why it’s necessary to look for opportunities like this, be it a competition or an exhibition. This is a way of interacting with the sphere of innovations, and it brings together the resulting opinions and ideas.
Can you talk about the non-project or competition side of things? What else makes a young scientist’s job interesting?
When I was just starting out at MIEM, a representative of MIEM Profkom said to me: ‘Rolich, you’re everywhere.’ And I really am everywhere. If I weren’t everywhere, I’d be nowhere. If you want to achieve something, you have to be everywhere at once. Working, not getting enough sleep, forgetting about yourself, sometimes refusing to relax… This is how I’m simultaneously involved in different projects, along with lab work, management, marketing, academics, and my work with a group of students. I got a lot of what I teach students in the 3D laboratory from my own experience. We have interdisciplinary projects that can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: you get credit, earn an additional stipend, put yourself out there as an academic, build up your portfolio, or create your own business.
My academic advisor Leonid Voskov and his first students Mikhail Komarov and Sergey Efremov founded the laboratory that we all came from – the WiSeNet Lab Laboratory for Innovative Projects. We created projects in the field of virtual reality, smart energy, wireless sensor networks, and the Internet of Things (IoT), which is a network of physical objects, dubbed ‘things,’ that are embedded with electronics, sensors, networks, etc., thereby allowing the physical objects to gather and exchange data.
An important question: how can you make money in science? A lot of people are scared of science solely because scientists typically don’t make a lot, which turns young people away.
That’s a myth that some want to believe. If you look at the innovative spheres of science, it becomes obvious that you can make money here. There’s a large difference in salary when you look at people who are locked away in a laboratory with test tubes versus those who work in a defence enterprise. There are also people who try to sell their good ideas because now really is a good time to contribute to science, and the word ‘startup’ has become synonymous with fairy-tale ventures. Even the government is now open to working with innovators.
In what way?
Through grants. Now, money is regularly allocated for certain developments, and not only military ones. Scientists are able to realize their curiosity on the government’s dime. And the state of the infrastructure of the innovative sphere in our country is not yet ideal, but the doors of the government are open for ideas if only you knock loud enough.
Bureaucracy forces you to be particularly pushy. You can’t just, say, go to the ministry of transport and say, ‘I have a cool idea that you desperately need.’ You have to write a dozen letters that will go ignored, and then you have to write another twenty, maybe one of which, by some miracle, someone will read. Then you have to find the people who will somewhat understand, and so on. But you can understand the ministries – they get tons of requests every day, sometimes not the most appropriate ones, and you might get lost in the spam folder. This means you have to stand out. You have to write the right letters and not get lazy, like me. I could be doing more for the innovations market, which would allow you to charge your iPhone on suburban trains as well.
Next year I’m supposed to create my own company, bring chargers to market, create jobs, etc. This is what the grant makes possible
Are there any obvious trends on the innovations market?
There is an obvious trend in the Internet of Things and useful gadgets such as fitness bracelets. Also virtual reality, augmented reality, multi-touch interaction, and robots, without which we’d get nowhere.
But the coolest things occur at the interface of various scientific areas. There’s medicine and informatics, which makes bioinformatics. That’s great! No one ever thought that 3D printers could print prosthetic bones and organs. There’s smart energy, which is critical, especially since the consumption of gadgets rises every day, and they will soon total 50 billion. In 20 years, all the world’s power plants will go towards gadgets if nothing is done.
In the laboratory, you’re making developments in the sphere of 3D visualisation. What achievements and discoveries have you been able to make?
The students created an interesting multi-touch table where several people at once can use their fingers to draw, and we’re currently developing a holographic imagery system on it. At this table, we’ll be able to see a hologram through a special optical system.
Wow, it sounds like something from the inside of a spaceship in a Hollywood movie…
It’s not that technical, but in the air you’ll be able to see files and objects by creating the necessary light. Of course, you won’t be able to use your fingers to stretch the screen, but work is underway in this area, and we already know how to do it.
We are also working on various types of 3D helmets with built-in audio systems, as well as on a project for students to attend 3D physics lectures.
We tried working with stereo imagery, which allows you to look at a photograph from a different perspective. Recently at a photography exhibition by Sergei Chelnokov at the Museum of Moscow, we created an information space of sorts out of stereograms. You could go there and see the photos in 3D, and also look at each subject in the picture. An entire story is formulated from details that can be studied from a cultural, philosophical, and artistic perspective.
We also have a glove with built-in vibration motors. When you touch a virtual object, your fingers feel a vibration, so you can even feel the virtual object in reality. There are some modelling issues with this, though, and it’s necessary to draw ‘reality’ itself as qualitatively as possible. Modelling reality could be in high demand in the museum world. This concerns online excursions or work with trainers. I have been toying with the idea of a virtual church, as one example.
Why not? If a religious person is handicapped, he or she should be able to visit a high-quality church and feel comfortable there.
is how much is awarded under the Russian Foundation for Basic Research grant, which is given to academic projects being carried out by young scientists.
It would be great if several people could attend at the same time and if a virtual pastor gave the sermon online. It’s a counter-strike of sorts, only religious.
Of course. But this involves different problems, the unchangeable ethical satellites of science.
What are you planning to do after you finish your post-graduate degree? Can an engineer become, say, the Russian Steve Jobs?
Every scientist who has created an innovative business that people work at is already a Steve Jobs in his or her sphere. Look at graduates of the Start programme. A lot of them have already started their own business. At the onset of their projects, techies or doctors didn’t think they’d become businessmen, but now here they are creating jobs for people. After all, every scientist also has a social responsibility. I, for example, as a participant of the programme, also have to create my own business next year, and before that I have to conduct developmental work, bring the chargers to market, and then create jobs. This is exactly what is made possible by the 2 million-ruble grant I got. As for my future plans after the university, I’ll have to consult my road map. For now, all of my attempts to grow are rather impulsive. Having tried out the various roles, I see myself as having a PhD, teaching, managing, whatever works out. The main thing is not to miss out on opportunities that arise unexpectedly. Scientists don’t wait for a muse.
I would definitely like to work with elementary students. Classes on 3D printing, robotics, and elementary programming are examples of ways to get kids interested, prepare them for technical disciplines, and shake things up a bit on the conservative side of education. This stops a child from entering a technical university without knowing what they’re getting themselves into, which is what happened with me. I did it because I liked playing games.