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About 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 HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Maxim Tsaturyan first became interested in innovation as an undergraduate student, and in 2018, he completed the Master's in Innovation Management at the HSE Department of Innovation Management. Today, Maxim heads a project office at Skolkovo and delivers lectures to HSE students. In this interview with Success Builder, Maxim elaborates on why working in the sphere of innovations requires one to embody the roles of a financial director, engineer, and PR manager all at once; how HSE University helps students acquire the most invaluable asset, which is social capital; and what types of projects most investors, with the government leading the way, actively seek.

You graduated with a degree in physics and technology, a field typically chosen by those aspiring for a career in IT. What guided your decision when you enrolled in university?

Capitalising on my future training was not a primary consideration for me at the time of enrolment. Career opportunities and high earnings seemed like a distant and uninteresting topic. Furthermore, the IT industry was just gaining momentum in the late 2000s and high school students were not yet obsessed with programming. Indeed, encouraging university applicants to choose careers in IT has only recently become one of the state's priorities.

In high school, I had a rather vague idea of my career aspirations. However, the moment finally came when I had to make a decision and select a university. The sole criterion for me was my profound interest in the subject, which was physics.

In high school, I adored physics, as I still do, because it provides an understanding of the real world and its governing principles

Interestingly, many graduates with degrees in physics and technology do not necessarily take up employment aligned with their training; instead, they go on to build successful careers in fields such as economics, business, or finance. This suggests that a foundational education in natural sciences can pave the way for diverse career opportunities. It is not necessary to set a career goal from the very beginning, as one develops a better understanding of one’s aspirations through study and personal growth. It is never too late to choose one path or another. 

For instance, during my studies, I realised that I wanted to approach physics from a more applied perspective because it is both interesting and translates well into business ideas. Nevertheless, I pursued a doctoral programme for a while, and I believe that academic knowledge is highly beneficial for grounding scientific hypotheses in practical reality. I was strongly drawn to the idea of building a bridge between science and the market, leading me to develop an interest in entrepreneurship, new technologies, raising investments, and all that is encompassed by the term 'innovation activities' today.

You gained your initial experience with innovations during your studies at university. What activity were you involved in, and what did it teach you about developing technology projects?

In my senior years at university, together with my colleagues at the department and my academic supervisor, we worked to transform our laboratory developments into a product with business potential. Most investors and the broader business community, representing the other side of the innovation market, were sceptical about science and wished to see immediate results or a compelling monetisation plan. This viewpoint was shared by representatives of government agencies, given the rapidly increasing demand for new technologies. In summary, there was a collective drive for fast, large-scale results.

Photo: HSE University

This trend quickly trickled down to universities, where efforts focused on technological innovation received financial support. Thus, students and early-career laboratory staff quickly started generating and pursuing ideas within set deadlines and with a view to commercial returns.

Different actors perceived the innovation boom differently: the government anticipated a rapid return on investment, university administrators were anxious about the required reporting, while students were delighted at their sense of achievement

Indeed, who wouldn't want to make money doing what they love, generating ideas, and applying their entrepreneurial skills? During that period, an innovative company was established at the university, where students engaged in high-tech projects and achieved notable success—the company was recognised as the best of its kind at the regional level. I gained some foundational understanding of how to engage with businesses and sell innovations. I also acquired the basic skills for conceptualising scientific ideas in practical terms, ie shifting the emphasis of a scientific presentation to potential commercial returns. Our success helped me realise what I truly wanted to do—create business cases for ideas originating from a laboratory and implement them as business ventures.

Despite a strong academic foundation, I still lacked basic knowledge of management and the overall workings of the market. I researched relevant courses offered by universities in Moscow and finally found one that met all my needs, which was the master's programme of the HSE Department of Innovation Management (now the HSE School of Innovation and Entrepreneurship—Ed.).

Innovation is a highly dynamic sphere. How does its study integrate into the framework of fundamental education? To what extent has the training influenced your practical experience?

Relocating to Moscow provided me with opportunities to integrate into a vast community of experts in the field of innovation, to gain an insider's perspective on the industry, and to discover my place within it. Initially, my focus was solely on my studies, but then I came across a job opening posted on social media for a position with the Innovation Promotion Fund and realised that I fit nearly all their criteria. My primary goal of working at the Fund was to complement my studies with practical, hands-on experience. However, I was so captivated by this work that I remained with them for a full five years.

Photo: HSE University

I certainly did not apply to HSE University with the primary intention of obtaining a degree from a prestigious school—innovation is a specific field, and job candidates here are selected based on their work experience and relevant skills. That being said, it is worth noting that a degree from HSE University can provide access to top positions in large companies and serve as an excellent launching pad for ambitious early-career professionals.

I also built an extensive network of contacts while at HSE University, which later played a crucial role in helping me connect with the business community and secure investments

The concept of 'fundamental knowledge' in the sphere of innovation is largely a convention. However, the pursuit of any business and commercialisation-related goal is grounded in tools, economic logic, and management skills, all of which are part of the theoretical foundation acquired at university. Viewed from this perspective, innovation is similar to any other product, and its specific aspects—legal, cultural, economic, and more—must be examined in each case. It is essential that innovation specialists understand the market at the level of economic patterns and are able to readjust promptly from one project to another.

What factors determine the overall competences of a specialist tasked with pitching innovations to investors?

The sphere of innovations is complex, demanding specialists at any level to possess a diverse set of skills. Certainly, specialised education ensures a high level of professionalism and consistency in performance. However, unlike other fields where training tends to narrow down and deepen one's competences, in innovation, one must be capable of expanding their skills and adopting a broader perspective.

For instance, a valuable employee of a venture fund or start-up, must, to some extent, demonstrate the skills of a financier, engineer, lawyer, and analyst, depending on the dynamics of the project. Additionally, they must possess communication and presentation skills relevant to government relations (GR), since the government is often a key investor. Thankfully, we were equipped with a diverse skill set at HSE University, and I find it easy to approach a project from various perspectives and demonstrate the requisite competences at different stages of its development.

HSE University has successfully developed a foundational educational programme in an entirely novel field, involving close collaboration with the innovation market and the integration of students into the expert community

Consequently, graduates of this unique programme are highly sought after in the labour market—in addition to the fact that holding a degree from a top-ranking university automatically enhances your employability and opens up opportunities to apply your skills in large and exciting projects.

Is it correct to assume that the government is the primary investor in innovative projects?

In reality, there are numerous private investors in the innovation market, and the most interested potential clients are companies which are dynamic, financially stable, possess strong human resources, and have well-organised management and decision-making processes. Generally, all companies interested in adopting innovations share structural similarities and demonstrate positive dynamics and well-established relationships with the government, corporations, shareholders, and experts.

Photo: HSE University

As an investor, the government is primarily interested in technologies expected to accelerate the digital economy. Therefore, IT developments are readily and promptly financed with the expectation of facilitating the implementation of domestically-created software. The emphasis on IT developments is propelling the entire market forward, given that the digital economy will impact even the most conservative of industries. Thanks to the attention paid to innovation and the establishment of professional structures that have laid the foundation for competent and high-quality work in this sphere, we can confidently assert that we have already achieved significant success.

The innovation market in Russia, particularly in the IT sector, is something we can, and should, take pride in. As a professional, I am doubly pleased to have contributed to its development. There is a need to swiftly elevate the economic sector to the level of innovations across industries, with the highest priority placed on the development of Russian technologies and their integration into business processes. With support from the government and major investors, the IT sector truly takes the lead in the innovation market, while fostering the development of projects in various fields, ranging from education and medicine to agriculture.

Drawing from your own experience, what advice would you offer to students of the innovation management programme today?

The key is to acquire practical experience and to work in a comfortable environment, especially since the field is diverse and needs qualified personnel. A distinctive aspect of innovation is speed. Everything needs to be done rapidly, preferably without compromising on quality. Innovative products must be integrated into ever-changing market conditions and trends, which can be stressful. However, you need to learn how to adapt and prioritise effectively.

Photo: HSE University

You also need to meticulously study the product, test your hypotheses, construct a financial model, structure the transactions, and more. This does not mean that you must delve deeply into every aspect. Typically, there is a team working on the project, and it is crucial for you to make well-informed decisions with an understanding of the overall objectives. All these aspects should be considered when selecting an industry; whenever possible, seek to gain practical experience to understand in which roles you can be most effective. With all this knowledge and expertise, graduates of the programme will be highly sought after, particularly given the substantial demand for specialists in this field.

What has changed in your career since joining the Skolkovo Foundation? What projects have you been working on there?

For me, Skolkovo has, in a sense, served as a platform for scaling up experience and managerial competences. Currently, I lead a team in the project office, where we are developing measures of government support for particularly significant projects, specifically focusing on import replacement of critical software in key sectors of the economy. Additionally, we support projects aimed at early pilot implementation of Russian solutions in the framework of the 'Artificial Intelligence' Federal Project.

Our team's task is to facilitate pilot implementation of Russian solutions, stimulate demand for domestic IT products, and provide high-quality expertise for our partners.

Our project office plays a crucial role in the industry by supporting new products at their most challenging stage—that of finalising and initial implementation

Essentially, what we do is conduct an expert review of a project, package it in a functional format in collaboration with its first customer, and assist in working out all the nuances of the agreement.

You contribute as an expert to the educational process at the HSE School of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. What knowledge have you been sharing with the students?

As an industry practitioner, my role is to assist students in connecting their academic learning with the practical realities of the innovation market. We analyse case studies, explore various strategies and directions, formulate solutions, and generally examine this sphere from an insider's perspective. In my presentations, I focus on sharing my personal experiences. I don't shy away from discussing my mistakes and the challenges of the profession, because overcoming them is essential for enriching one's expertise. I hope that my advice to future innovation specialists, covering both communication and technical aspects, will prove helpful and shield them from making poor decisions.

It's worth noting that many students in the programme are already well-established professionals. This transforms our training sessions into a mutually enriching exchange of experiences. In a way, I am also learning from them. It is always interesting to approach a task from a different angle, as every passionate specialist tends to turn their professional occupation into a creative pursuit. Interacting with students inspires me and assists in adopting new perspectives for approaching problems and finding solutions. I am genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with such a diverse, highly motivated audience, and HSE University succeeds in attracting precisely this type of student.