10th Innovation Workshop at Skoltech kicks off

The 2023 Innovation Workshop was launched Friday, returning for an anniversary edition — the 10th held at Skoltech and in Russia. IW is a hallmark of Skoltech’s education for future tech entrepreneurs and innovators. In this signature program, all of the Institute’s MSc freshman students spend one month before taking any other courses to come up with an innovative idea in a team with peers they have just met, build a working prototype, present it to a potential end user, and iterate over stages of feedback-driven improvements. Delivered by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and originally developed in partnership with MIT, the course seeks to spark an entrepreneurial mindset in students right from their first days at Skoltech.

The Innovation Workshop is known for its unique international atmosphere, created first and foremost by the team of mentors with diverse backgrounds, hailing from around the world. They work with students to inspire them, track their progress, assess and refine their innovative ideas, provide guidance and constructive criticism, rehearse presentations, and so on.

“This time in spite of all odds we’re proud to have 18 executives and entrepreneurs from 10 countries on the mentoring team,” said Professor Dmitry Kulish, the director of both the Innovation Workshop and the Entrepreneurship Center of Skoltech. “This figure speaks for itself. These are all dazzling personalities, outstanding experts, big bosses. The students are going to like them.”

True to the maxim of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the Innovation Workshop evolves in iterations, by trial and error. This time the organizers are implementing a sophisticated project tracking approach piloted last year. It relies on a complex teaching tool called Online Kanban. “When you have 60 innovative projects on your hands, they may be comparatively easy to launch, but a nightmare to track,” Kulish said. Under the new tracking approach, each team is assigned a Kanban board, where it reports progress on its project. The mentors and TAs can use this, for example, to go over the project boards together on the big screen in the morning to stay up to date on what’s going on. “This is a pedagogical innovation fit for a school of innovators that Skoltech is,” the director added.

Looking back at the Innovation Workshop’s history at Skoltech, its evolution encompassed various adaptations to the mindset of a Russian engineer and to the Institute’s environment in general. “The basic tenets are the same as when this course was invented at MIT,” Kulish commented. “You start from a hunch, build a product prototype, show it to the end user, and introduce feedback-driven improvements in an iterative manner. And for this concept we are grateful to MIT. Yet the pedagogical implementation in Russia, at Skoltech has come to be quite different over the years.”

The inaugural edition of the course in the U.S. featured 60 MIT business school students and 20 Skoltech engineering students, but as soon as this model was transferred to 200 engineers in Russia, unexpected difficulties started to crop up. “We had to change how presentations work in the course, introduced the much-disputed attendance monitoring, put a really strong emphasis on the international atmosphere radiated by the mentoring team,” Kulish recalled. “We came up with the notion of a project fair, where professors advertise what their labs are doing to win students over for their projects that need commercialization.” This has to do with another adaptation: IW at Skoltech sets the ambitious goal of persuading students to try and deliver viable real-life innovations as opposed to just getting the hang of how new technologies come about.

“In the end, what sticks in one’s memory the most are probably the personal success stories of students,” Kulish contemplated, recalling three such stories from various years. In one, a student approached him five years ago, searching for an idea. The professor suggested the project fair as a source of inspiration, and sure enough, the student got hooked by one of the faculty patents. But he couldn’t convince his teammates. They picked another project and delivered it, but it turned out that another team had partnered with the author of that first patent and even continued working on the project after the event was over. And they wouldn’t take him in. “Tough luck,” Kulish said. “But tell you what, why don’t you try and convince him you can do the job better. And he won!”

“And then there was a young woman who was rather skeptical about what she perceived as ‘toy ideas’ for projects circulating around the Innovation Workshop. But then she came to the project fair and found her inspiration, too,” the IW director recalled, adding that she defended her project and wanted to continue with it after the course ended, which the organizers see as the best-case scenario. But that technology did not fit the graduate program that she was taking. Now, transferring from one master’s program to another is a very difficult and tedious process. But she did it in order to pursue her project, which in time proved a success.

Another one of the IW students went on to join the course’s team as a teaching assistant this year. He’s given it some thought and believes that most of the students who terminate their projects once the IW ends do this either because they have not found their “hunch” or else they find it overwhelming to maintain a startup and simultaneously study for a degree. But then again, perhaps finding an idea that truly drives them could make that difference and push them to run the extra mile. “And he says he found his hunch, thanks to the inspiration provided by the Innovation Workshop, and now he’s helping others find it as well,” Kulish said. “To me that’s what pedagogical success looks like.”

What these cases have in common is that each of the students sought and found an idea that really drives them, in spite of all manner of obstacles. Similarly, the Innovation Workshop itself is a passion that impels/pushes the organizers regardless of the sometimes unfavorable external situation.