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In frozen Siberia, Russia tries to seed a start-up culture

The Kremlin is backing havens, including one in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where entrepreneurs can sidestep a culture of corruption and cronyism that hampers innovation.

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The Tomsk incubator, for example, uses a jury of university professors and local businesspeople to judge which ideas to sponsor, but the government picks up the tab.

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Great idea – but will it make money?

Mr. Titkov oversees several dozen mostly youthful inventors, who huddle behind glass-fronted offices tinkering with odd contraptions or peering at computer screens. The menagerie of creations on display is fascinating, even if it’s hard to see how some of them (a soccer-playing robot?) could ever make money.

But some are promising. Dmitry Klim­enko, a student at Tomsk University, says he has found a way to make high-quality 3-D computer graphics far more cheaply than existing methods, which could have big implications for online shopping and gaming.

Kovalyov estimates that his scooter weighs half as much and has twice the battery life as the US-made Segway PT. Alexander Bulavin has a cooking system powered by artificial intelligence that he insists will perfectly prepare almost any dish using recipes that can be downloaded from the Internet. It may still have a few bugs: An omelet he served to visitors recently was burned around the edges.

The Kremlin is paying $3 billion for its latest project, a futuristic high-tech park in Skolkovo, near Moscow, that will have its own laws and customs regulations, to create an interface between Russia’s best technical minds and the world economy. Mr. Medvedev last month defended the use of state resources to create such “islands” for innovators, saying it was necessary to plug Russia’s brain drain.

Change the tax code instead

But critics say the Kremlin’s resources, as well as Medvedev’s bully pulpit, might be better used to promote reform of Russia’s archaic tax code, fight corruption, and break up the industrial empires that many blame for stifling competition and inhibiting innovation.

“At the top they have these romantic ideas about modernization, but nothing is done to prepare the ground for real changes,” says Vladimir Belkin, director of the Institute of Economy of the Urals Region in the western Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

“It’s still the same old reality in Russia, in that initiative is often punished. Managers don’t look for new ideas, and most people tend to regard innovators as upstarts. Until that changes, nothing else will.”

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