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MIT, Russian foundation to open tech research hub

MIT signed an agreement yesterday to jointly found a graduate research university in Skolkovo, Russia, a planned technology research hub outside Moscow meant to be Russia’s equivalent of Silicon Valley.

Seda Pumpyanskaya - a vice president at the Skolkovo Foundation, the Russian-backed nonprofit that is building the complex - compared the new university to a baby.

“MIT will put it on its feet so it can start walking,’’ she said.

MIT and the foundation signed a 70-page agreement, the result of nearly two years of negotiations, that calls for them to collaborate in minute detail on curriculum design, recruitment, and even job descriptions.

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The new university, to be called SkTech (pronounced “ESS-kay-tech’’) will offer master’s and doctoral degrees in five interdisciplinary areas: energy science, biomedicine, information technology, space science, and nuclear science.

The Russian foundation will cover all of the school’s costs, which it will raise from the Russian government, private companies, and independent investors.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia has said speed is key to getting SkTech up and running. Although the new university has no faculty and construction has yet to begin, Pumpyanskaya said it could open with a full-size inaugural class by 2014. Ultimately, it is intended to have 200 faculty members, 1,200 master’s and doctoral students, and 300 postdoctoral fellows.

The school will not offer MIT degrees and is not considered a branch campus of that university.

“It won’t be under MIT’s brand,’’ Pumpyanskaya said. “It’s going to be an independent entity. But we hope to create on the European scale something similar to MIT, prestigious and well designed.’’

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has embarked on similar ventures in the past. During the 1960s and ’70s, it was instrumental in building the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, one of India’s most prestigious research universities.

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It also helped launch a management school in Calcutta and a technology institute in Rajasthan. In 2007, it helped the government of Abu Dhabi create a graduate research institute, and since then it has opened two similar technology centers in Singapore.

MIT had tight ties with Skolkovo already. The foundation’s chief operating officer, Steven Geiger, is an MIT graduate. And in 2009, MIT’s Sloan School of Management launched an MBA partnership with a business school at Skolkovo, featuring project-based courses led by Sloan faculty.

At the new university, MIT professors and students will be expected to collaborate with their Russian counterparts on research. The new school’s president, Ed Crawley, will come from MIT, where he is a professor of engineering, aeronautics, and astronautics.

“He is an inspired choice,’’ said Lawrence Bacow, president in residence at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “He is a terrific scholar, a great administrator, an entrepreneur in his own right, and he speaks fluent Russian. He also knows MIT inside and out.’’

Crawley said he hoped the Skolkovo complex would resemble MIT’s home base in Kendall Square.

“This is the most interesting position in higher ed in the world,’’ he said. “Kendall Square grew up organically - I started four companies there - and now I have the opportunity to say, ‘If I had to design Kendall from scratch, what would it look like?’ ’’

On the other hand, he added, “We have to make a fundamentally Russian institution. This is not a carbon copy of MIT.’’

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The school will focus on entrepreneurship.

“Russian students are intellectually well prepared by Western standards, but they have had very little opportunity to encounter ideas like entrepreneurship or building new products,’’ Crawley said. “If I ask students at MIT whether they’re interested in starting companies, they usually all raise their hands. If I were to ask the same question at Moscow State University, they’d look at me like, ‘What was the question?’ ’’

Like Kendall Square, the Skolkovo complex will be swarming with high-tech firms. It has offered operating permits to about 200 companies, including an all-star list of US firms, among them Google, Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, Boeing, IBM, Dell, and Cisco. Cisco alone has committed $1 billion over 10 years.

The companies’ enthusiasm partly stems from legal changes in Russia. Lawmakers there have introduced tax incentives for residents of Skolkovo and eased some restrictions to help firms protect their intellectual property and bring in new workers and technologies from abroad.

Axel Tillmann - chief executive of RVC-USA, a Boston venture capital firm that is helping early-stage businesses take advantage of Russian resources - said he hoped the Skolkovo projects would set a precedent for the rest of the country.

“We think success in Skolkovo could build a legal feedback loop and the overall way of doing business in Russia could change,’’ he said.

Skolkovo’s boosters also hope the complex will attract top talent and slow Russia’s brain drain.

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“It’s designed to stop the intellectual bleeding of Russia, to convince people to stay instead of fleeing to Silicon Valley or our mini-Silicon Valley here on the East Coast,’’ Tillmann said.

But some critics worry that Skolkovo will become a bonanza for corrupt officials.

“The greedy bureaucrats are already salivating in anticipation of the hundreds of construction permits that will be required to develop a Silicon Valley from scratch,’’ Vladimir Ryzhkov, a politician opposing Medvedev, wrote in The Moscow Times last year.

Zhores Alferov, a physicist and Nobel Laureate who advises project officials, said during this past summer’s St. Petersburg Economic Forum that MIT and other institutions seeking partnerships would have to move carefully.

“The success of Skolkovo depends on one thing: that we do it together,’’ he said. “Our foreign partners should understand that they are not here to make big money or to take advantage of our national talent.’’


Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.