From Russia with Love

It is not everyday that a person gets to see something entirely foreign and new and have their eyes opened to things that delight and surprise them, but I have just returned from a week of that feeling and it was downright revelatory.

It started in November with an invitation I received from the Skolkovo Foundation, an Innovation-focused foundation established by the Russian government (yes, that Russia) to foster innovation across a variety of Russian industries.  The invitation was to participate as a speaker and moderator at a conference on digital health which would occur the week of December 9th in Moscow and, while there, to help judge a business plan competition in the same area, all expenses paid.  My first thought was that it was one of those scams where you end up having to buy a time share at the end, except that the invitation was co-signed by people who I know to be entirely legit and super smart: Dr. Milena Adamian, who runs the Life Science Angels Network Fund in New York, and well-known tech and health angel investor Esther Dyson.  Ok, I figured, I’ll check it out and see if it’s for real, and it was.

Who knew that the Russian government was trying to build a culture of healthcare innovation in their country?  I’m sure others did, but not me.  We have barely begun to build a culture of healthcare IT innovation in our own country.  As I planned for the trip I realized, quite pathetically, that my knowledge of Russian culture and business is derived largely from college history classes, occasional CNN snippets about governmental intrigue and failed diplomacy, space exploration news and James Bond movies.  As an investor, there is a lot of industry chatter about the growth and opportunity afforded in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but the last two get most of the attention, and my fund doesn’t invest outside the US, so I have not paid as much attention as I have to, say, economic development in Louisiana or the unexplored areas that lurk on the border of Silicon Valley, like the exotic locales of Santa Rosa and Pleasanton.

It’s not that I’m not interested in the world outside my own immediate zip code-I am without a doubt–but Russia is an especially mysterious place to most Americans.  It’s not just foreign, it’s laden with intrigue and stories of hard line government, political prisoners and centrally controlled industry.  The day-to-day changes that have taken place there since the advent of Perestroika in the late 1980’s have not made it to prime time TV.  There is no Housewives of Downtown Moscow and we do not see Russian designers or even much in the way of their cuisine or entertainment in our own culture stream; every once in a while we see a Russian-born supermodel but rarely does the country’s modern culture become obvious to us.  Russia may have had 30 years of capitalism, but most Americans still equate Russia with spy intrigue, borscht, Anna Karenina and questionable elections (which, by the way, are something for which we are also becoming known).

I have just returned from 5 days in Russia and it was an incredible experience in so many ways, especially because it opened my eyes to many things about which I really did not know.  There are, of course, many significant differences between the countries (by the way, access to Starbucks and McDonalds is not one of those differences) but also many similarities, particularly around health care system needs.  While our US innovation culture has been incredibly different, the Russians are working very hard to join the club and the several hundred entrepreneurs and related individuals that were around the weeks’ events looked exactly like their blue jean-wearing, iPad-toting, nerdy and driven American counterparts.