Swiss and Russian tech ventures increase

Swiss and Russians collaborate in animation software venture (Virtoons)

Swiss entrepreneurs have discovered Russian technology.

This content was published on September 15, 2003 - 14:52

Obscured for a long time by news about cowboy capitalism, oil oligarchs and scandals, Russia’s technologists are attracting attention and capital.

Some Swiss startups are already benefiting. At least four high-tech firms here have tapped into Russian resources, transferring breakthroughs to Western markets.

Geneva-based ACOL Technologies formed a new company with Russian entrepreneur, Alexander Shishov, to commercialise his know-how in making ultra-high brightness light emitting diodes used in traffic lights.

Two other firms, A4Vision and Virtoons AG, are tapping Russia’s advanced digital signal processing and algorithm developments to make software for niche markets, while Novavox based its entire R&D effort in St Petersburg.

It has had success selling its computer telephone software products to telecommunications equipment manufacturers and wireless operators.

Intel and Israel

The Swiss are not the only ones to have discovered this shortcut to advanced technology and innovation.

People talk about the success stories and role models such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Israel’s Russian immigrants, many of whom worked in the former Soviet Union’s military industrial complex, are also considered essential to Israel’s high tech success.

The United States has been a big adopter of Russian creativity and technical prowess. Software for Intel’s Centrino chip is developed entirely in Russia.

Intel Capital’s Marie Trexler told BusinessWeek that her company hopes to profit from the country’s knowledge of materials science.

She says man-made crystals could lead to new semiconductor materials. Her firm already employs some 500 engineers across the former Soviet Union.

“Russian algorithms could lead to faster processors and software. Wireless and radio circuit design are also Russian strengths,” said Trexler.

Pingu to get some company

One-year-old Virtoons AG is a Zurich-based animation studio, founded by Russian-born Alexander Semenov. His studio is developing real time animation software it acquired from a Moscow-based high-tech incubator called Latypov.

The firm has already won a prestigious contract from SF DRS for a new children’s cartoon series, the first new animation series since Pingu was made ten years ago.

Virtoons’ software has a number of advantages over existing animation software from Silicon Valley and Toronto. “Pixar and Dreamworks have a solution that runs on terabit process and needs gigabytes of storage,” explains Semenov.

The goal is that the software can capture real time movement and motion, enabling designers who normally have to draw each character’s incremental movements. The computer will capture the movement and translate it into the animated character.

Surprisingly, Semenov’s software runs on standard processors. The reason is that the developers in Russia just did not have access to the capital to acquire high performance computers. Semenov believes it is a smart approach as existing companies already occupy the niche for supercomputer-based animation solutions.

Financial aid from the Swiss Organisation for Facilitating Investments (SOFI), an initiative of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in cooperation with KPMG, was instrumental in Semenov’s startup efforts.

Russian ingenuity

ACOL Technologies is another startup firm that is tapping Russian breakthroughs in the field of optoelectronics.

Jean Charles Herpeux wanted to exploit his experience building up a sophisticated sales and marketing organisation for a US-based technology company in Europe. When he decided to form his own company, he went to Russia to look for some bright ideas. That was when he met Alexander Shishov, who ran a company called Corvette Lights.

The two formed ACOL to enable ultra-high brightness LEDs (light emitting diodes) and subsystems. They are packaged in a way that makes them brighter but the heat dissipation is managed by a patented method that makes them long lasting. Typical applications are traffic lights, brake lights, commercial displays, and giant screen computer displays.

Herpeux is a big fan of the Russian techno-elite. “If you want to talk about reliable technology, just remember that it was the Russian Soyuz that rescued the NASA space station crew,” says Herpeux. (It should also be noted that the MIR also long outlived its planned expiration date when it finally burned out in 2001 after 15 years in service.)

Herpeux says working with the Russians is just like managing an operation in any remote place in the world. “There is less difference in the culture between the Swiss and the Russian than the Swiss and the Americans or the Japanese,” says Herpeux.

“The Swiss, the French and the Russian education systems are normative,” he says.

Whereas the Anglo Saxon method of educating people tends to reward good presentation skills and self expression rather than demonstration of an ability to complete assignments based on certain standards.

What makes Russia outstanding is that it rewards creativity at the same time, which results in engineers and software developers alike solving problems.

From Russia to the shores of Lac Leman to Silicon Valley

A4Vision has transferred technology from Russian labs to Geneva and now to Silicon Valley. Its facial recognition system relies on inexpensive digital cameras, an infrared grid projector, and a standard PC running A4Vision’s software.

Backed by an Italian venture capital company and Switzerland’s Logitech, A4Vision, has its R&D activities in Moscow but that probably will not be touted too much in the future as the firm has American headquarters and is aiming for the US-homeland security market.

“The Russians have the inter-disciplinary know-how to understand the optics, electronics, math and physics required to make such software work,” says Kelly Richdale, a co-founder of A4Vision.

Richdale says she was able to ramp up quickly, growing from 10 employees to 60 within 18 months. The Moscow engineers are “hard-working”, able to make innovations, but also willing to do the hard work required to commercialize a technology.

St Petersburg R&D

Novavox AG was founded in 1994 and employs 75 people. It is currently restructuring and relying on the adaptability of its Russian R&D team to grow into the future. It is branching out into offshore software development.

Andre Zgraggen, the company founder now lives in Russia. The advantages of being in Russia are not only technical; market-wise the products can be made available in six other languages due to the language skills of his St Petersburg crew, he said.

The Swiss Russian tech exchange

A number of government funded initiatives could very well lead to further partnerships between Russian and Swiss scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

For example, the SNF is funding dozens of joint research projects on a wide range of topics, many are basic research in physics related and biotech topics, but some have direct application in advanced materials and future electronics and quantum computing applications.

And just last week more than a dozen delegates from Russia visited in a tour organized by the Swiss government and the Russian equivalent of the SNF.

The scientists toured research centers across the country, including the Paul Scherrer Institut, CSEM, EMPA, and universities in Zurich and Lausanne in order to enable collaborations between the two countries.

by Valerie Thompson

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