September 30, 2020

Siberian Startup Traditions / N+1

What has been achieved by young entrepreneurs in Tomsk for a century and a half

The key to a successful startup is to discover some human needs, even if people do not imagine their existence, and to satisfy them. The key to a successful Siberian startup is not to let stereotypes about cold and desolate Siberia to frighten you to identify some needs… well, you know the rest. Over the past century and a half, there have been many such examples. Driven by the #startupdiplom entrepreneur internship, organized in cooperation with the TechnoSpark group of companies, students can try themselves in technology entrepreneurship. All year, they study from the experienced entrepreneurs and combine the presentation of graduate qualification work with real startup development. Together with Tomsk State University, N + 1 describes several interesting challenges the young technology entrepreneurs have coped with.

Challenge No. 1. Timely diagnose concussion in athletes

Brain concussion is quite a common injury in athletes of most sports. Vadim Timoshenko, a student of Tomsk State University, who is building a concussion sensor startup at TechnoSpark, talks about the accurate and effective concussion diagnostics with the help of a wearable sensor used by athletes.

Photo by N+1

As a frequent and dangerous injury, concussion is highly-probable to lead to some serious health problems in athletes. Tomography and a doctor’s examination can diagnose a concussion. However, the problem is that a tiny percentage of injured athletes go through this procedure. Thus, the injury on the field is diagnosed by the athlete himself and his coach. The athlete is not experienced to make a diagnosis based on his feelings, and competitive motivation will hinder paying enough attention to the injury. Meanwhile, a coach, a referee and other participants can only make a brief review and rough estimation of the injury. A concussion should be diagnosed by a specialist, but the doctor will not follow a hockey player around the field and conduct an examination after each blow. Therefore, this startup objective is to replace a doctor with a fairly compact sensor that will continuously monitor the athlete.

It is important that sports clubs and leagues are responsible for the athletes’ injuries. There are multimillion collective lawsuits against sports leagues for insufficient attention to the concussion problem. It is exactly clubs and leagues that are prospective customers of the startup being developed by Vadim.

For example, in March 2019, Kelly Catlin, a famous cyclist from the UK, committed suicide. Her parents believe the reason to be a concussion, received by the athlete at one of the training sessions. At first, she did not take account of the injury and did not even turn to doctors, however, she noticed profound health changes later – a lack of concentration on studies and training, uncontrolled outbursts of rage. Despite various concurrent factors, such as social pressure, heavy training and study, it is not worth eliminating a concussion to become a trigger for several irreparable brain changes, leading to the tragedy, since it was not diagnosed in time.

A fighter syndrome is also an interesting and quite widespread phenomenon meaning the cumulative effect of concussions. As a result of repeated head injuries during the career, fighters in old age or retirement very often experience cognitive problems like short-term memory loss or even dementia. This affected many award-winning athletes, for example, Muhammad Ali.

Thus, effective early brain diagnostics of athletes is urgent. It is impossible to ensure high accuracy when determining the state of an injured person, based on his subjective perception only. So, we want to exclude this subjectivity by the concussion sensor for athletes. The device will always register the force of impact on the athlete and signalize of the incident occurrence.

I joined this startup as early as at the initiation stage. I had to analyze the market, come up with the product insight, give a statement of work to a group of engineers. Today, the startup is at the stage of selecting a contract engineering to create a prototype.

Also, we decided to create a mobile application simultaneously with the device. Having studied the market, we understood that the product success would strongly depend on a high-quality graphical interface and should not be limited to simple squeaking on the athlete’s safety helmet. Injury information, transmitted to the mobile phones of the doctor, coach and athlete in live mode, will allow necessary decisions on replacement or hospitalization of the player to be made immediately.

Challenge No. 2. Prevent biocorrosion at oil production facilities

Biocorrosion is a kind of corrosion caused by bacterial activity. It is a serious problem of the oil industry, leading to unplanned shutdowns of installations, reduced oil production and additional repair expenditures. Elizaveta Samoylova, a student of Tomsk State University, talks about how to reduce losses caused by the biocorrosion at oil production facilities. As a part of the #startupdiplom entrepreneur internship at TechnoSpark, she was creating a biotech company to determinate the biocorrosion sources.

Photo by N+1

Biocorrosion is quite a common problem in the oil industry. Approximately 40 percent of cases are accounted for by this corrosion. At the same time, in the oil industry, it is the fight against biocorrosion that is an innovation that most oil companies have no idea about. Many people doubt that a large percentage of corrosive contamination really comes from biological organisms and continue dealing with leaks and pipe breaks every year. Interacting with industry players, we found companies that showed interest in how to remove the source of corrosion. For example, an original cause could be the technical water from a neighboring reservoir, pumped down into the well. The longstanding problem solution was found in installing filters so that the water was cleaned from microorganisms before entering the well.

The project had already been existing for a year by the moment I joined it. Before me, Biospark (a part of the TechnoSpark group of companies) had already begun its development. In cooperation with a large oil company, we worked through the first case presenting our samples, and Biospark conducted genome-wide and PCR sequencing to identify corrosive bacteria. Further, I was involved in a wide range of startup marketing tasks, from designing the company logo to negotiating and attending various professional events. For example, I took part in the St. Petersburg corrosion forum, where I reported that there was already such a company that could offer biocorrosion monitoring services in Russia.

Actually, neither a service nor a company can be found in Russia to be its analogue; there are only some oil company laboratories that conduct unconventional studies as a side activity, while we specialize in bacterial contamination monitoring and surely do our work faster and more precisely because we have required equipment that is not available in laboratories of oil companies. Our tests cost reasonable money and are carried out rather quickly. It takes us three days to provide a report on bacterial species found in the samples and their quantitative ratios. We can also give recommendations on the use of a particular biocide, a substance designed to control harmful microorganisms. This means we can recommend which biocide to choose to reduce the microorganism concentration or to make them all disappear.

It is important to specify that the biocorrosion problem is very different in scale for each oil company. For those working in Western Siberia, this problem is not very relevant, as their revenue from a well exceeds the losses caused by the well corrosion. It is a problem of immediate interest for the companies located in the European part of Russia.

Biocorrosion monitoring is a promising service that has already caught the attention of the Russian oil giants.

Challenge No. 3. Establish a university in Siberia

From the date of the Tomsk University foundation, a new historical period for the Siberia exploration and development has begun, the era of enlightenment, education and science in the Asian part of Russia. Tomsk State University was the first Russian university eastward of the Volga and, of course, a successful Siberian startup.

Photo by N+1

The idea of ​opening a university in Siberia arose at the beginning of the 19th century. However, a preparatory stage took quite a long time, including the selection of the most suitable Siberian city to locate the university, which could train specialists required by various Siberian industries to meet their needs on a regular basis. Seven cities, including Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk, competed for the right to found the first Siberian university. Still, the Committee on City Election decided that Tomsk was the most suitable place.

Therefore, on May 16 (28), 1878, by the supreme order of Alexander II, it was decided to establish the Imperial Siberian University comprised of four departments (of medicine, history and philology, law, physics and mathematics) in Tomsk.

It took about ten more years to design and construct the university building, and on July 22, 1888, its grand opening ceremony was held. In the same year, on September 1, classes of the first opened department began – it was the department of medicine. Only 72 students were enrolled in the first year.

Most of the teachers came from universities of European Russia. Nikolai Gezekhus became the first principal of Tomsk University. He was invited from St. Petersburg as a full professor at the Department of Physics, Physical Geography and Meteorology of Imperial Tomsk University. N. Gezekhus was the only teacher of physics at the university for a long time and, in addition to a lecture course, also taught practical classes. Although he had worked at Tomsk University for only a year, he kept in touch with it and even sent a warm congratulation on the 25th anniversary of its opening.

Among those standing at the onset of the first Siberian university was Nikolai Kashchenko, a zoologist, honored full professor at the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy of Tomsk University. He worked at the university from 1888 to 1912 and even held the position of principal from 1894. He was successful in discovering a mammoth skeleton with traces of human activity near Tomsk. N.  Kashchenko made a significant contribution to the creation and development of the Zoological Museum, which counted about 950 stuffed animals, skeletons and models, as well as more than 3,000 alcohol preparations by the time of his departure from Tomsk.

Krylov, S. Korzhinsky, A. Dogel, A. Zaitsev, N. Maliev and some others, were also among the first professors. All of them came from remote cities and showed great enthusiasm and responsibility for the training of Tomsk University students. For the first ten years from the university foundation, about 300 doctors were trained. In addition, dozens of expeditions were carried out to study nature and search for minerals in Siberia, many ethnographic and archaeological expeditions also took place.

The university did not stand still and was actively developing. In 1989, ten years after the university was founded, the Department of Law was established, and even later, in 1912, the Department of History and Philology, and the Department of Physics and Mathematics opened.

Challenge No. 4. Clean limescale off heat engineering equipment in environment-friendly way

Heat engineering equipment requires annual maintenance; one of the main reasons to stop the operation and clean the equipment is limescale. Konstantin Nekrasov, a student of Tomsk State University, talks about how to clean the equipment of limescale quickly and eco-friendly, reducing the costs associated with the equipment maintenance and replacement. In the course of his entrepreneur internship at TechnoSpark, Konstantin tried to repeat the successful startup and eventually revealed the facts of its deceptive advertising.

Photo by N+1

Traditionally, for cleaning pipes from limescale, either a mechanical method is used in combination with an electrophysical, or a chemical one. In the first case, the problem is the cleaning process duration and low efficiency. In the second case, in general, we are talking about the use of acids, which is not eco-friendly, requires mandatory disposal and can cause severe damage to the equipment. Bioorganic cleaning is more effective and environment-friendly than all the limescale cleaning methods existing on the market.

The idea of ​using bacteria to clean pipes from limescale was born at TechnoSpark as far back as in 2017, but work on the project was launched with my attendance in September 2019. The project was at the initial stage, so, in general, I had to develop the startup almost from scratch.

In the first weeks, the two main aspects of work were defined. Firstly, it was necessary to make a profound analysis of the market and competitive products, and secondly, to create our own R&D department. The first stage of work was completed in quite a short time, and in terms of the second one, of course, the situation was more complicated. There are not many microbiologists capable of developing such a product. Sometimes even just getting qualified advice presented considerable practical difficulties. Finally, we chose the Institute of Microbiology in Pushchino, where we applied for a consultation a bit later. Now we are planning to conduct further R&D there.

Challenge No. 5. Prolong lawn life by genetic services

When used, lawns are often affected and damaged, and the companies responsible for their maintenance bear the costs associated with urgent replacement of the damaged areas. Phytopathogenic microorganisms are often the key source of lawn diseases. Maria Berdnikova, a student at Tomsk State University, reveals the ways to increase the lawn quality and life period, as well as to reduce the cost of its maintenance. She undertook entrepreneur internship at the GreenGene technology company, which provides genetic services to extend the life of lawns.

Photo by N+1

Phytopathogens, the dangerous microorganisms that cause various diseases in plants, are among the primary sources of lawn affection. It is important to identify them in the early stages of the disease because often it is too late for treatment when the lesion becomes visible to the naked eye.

Russia is a very large country with different climates and various conditions of lawn usage. Lawns in Krasnodar are affected not like those in Krasnoyarsk. And, concerning microorganisms, lawns are infected by different species.

This means that it is impossible to release a universal preventive lawn treatment to be used throughout the country. Sample collecting and sending to be tested by the institute laboratories is also not a solution. There are few appropriate laboratories, whereas there are lawns throughout the country. Loss of time subject to logistics will lead to the destruction of a lawn section.

What is believed to be much more effective, is to create a monitoring system that, once in an affordable period, will tell the lawn holder what microorganisms it needs to be treated from. This significantly reduces the cost of replacing damaged areas.

When I got on an internship at GreenGene (a part of TechnoSpark group of companies), a business hypothesis had already been formulated, the technology had been functioning, and the first tests had been carried out. However, there had been a certain set of problems to be solved in priority. For example, we needed to create a phytopathogenic database with regard to the interrelation between lawn plants and pathogenic agents, as well as the ways phytopathogens affect certain plant species.

I was engaged in managerial and entrepreneurial tasks, in other words, I had to deal with some agreement documentation and the search for partners to participate in R&D. It happened that I represented the company at various exhibitions, including the Open Innovations in Skolkovo and the Lawn Forum. The last event is dedicated to the lawn care among professional greenkeepers, the specialists who are engaged in lawn maintenance.

Our company has a basic market product. It entails diagnostics and provision of a microbiological profile, that is the information on the phytopathogens presence, their quantitative ratio and conventional differentiation (pathogenic, potentially pathogenic or non-pathogenic).

I managed to agree on a pilot project with one of the football stadiums in Sochi, with a couple of golf clubs and one more stadium.

The company continues to develop. In the future, the database will be improved and expanded; some additional tests will be carried out. It is also planned to add the database with the neutral and phytostimulating microorganisms that contribute to the plant growth. It is likely that some statistical data on lawn diseases will already be collected.

The stories of today’s students of Tomsk State University inspire no less than those of their alma-mater founders, because, similar to them, they went away from home driven by the goal to create a technology startup almost from scratch, to move science forward, still not resting regardless of the heights reached.

For 142 years since its foundation, Tomsk University has gone a long way from the first university in Siberia with a single department to one of the leading universities in the country, which is currently comprised of 14 departments, 6 educational institutes and 4 research institutes.

Despite the never-ending development and new relevant educational programs, the initial priorities of Tomsk University remain eternal and unchanged. These are inseparable unity of education and scientific research, and the creative personality cultivation. Once again this is demonstrated by the #startupdiplom entrepreneur internship, mutually organized by the TechnoSpark group of companies and Tomsk State University, in the framework of which students worked on startups, described in the stories we have heard.

Source: N+1

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