Blockchain may be yesterday's news if Sberbank's Demo Day conference is anything to judge by.
Russia's largest bank Sberbank held its first Demo Day this week in Moscow in partnership with San Francisco-based venture capital firm 500 Startups to encourage Russian IT start-ups through a joint accelerator program. Thirty young firms, selected from more than 840 applicants, were given two minutes to pitch their fledgling businesses to a panel of judges and potential investors during the one-day event.
Christine Tsai, founding partner of 500 Startups and opening speaker at Demo Day, said that her firm believes that the next wave of entrepreneurs are likely to be found outside of Silicon Valley.
“We strive to make connections between entrepreneurs, mentors and investors,” she added. “The most important component of the ecosystem isn’t vision or strategy, but putting the right people and the resources together, so we seek out partners who share that vision.” Since its formation in 2010, 500 Startups has gained expertise in selecting young business with strong potential for growth. Partnering with Sberbank provided 500 Startups access to talent and innovation in Russia and a strong brand on which to build scalable businesses.
In his remarks at Demo Day, Sberbank’s first deputy chief executive Lev Khasis cited the humble beginnings of Amazon and said that the accelerator program that the bank launched late last year with 500 Startups aimed to identify “the next Amazon now in its first stages.” Sberbank CEO Herman Gref mentioned the work of Russia’s Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF), a venture capital fund aimed at helping Russian tech entrepreneurs develop fast-growing global businesses.
Since taking the reins of state-owned Sberbank in 2007, Gref has been working to reinvent the institution originally founded in 1841 as the Russian Imperial Savings Associations. His goal: to compete with much younger rivals in an era when tech start-ups can quickly attract develop valuations than long-established incumbents and non-bank companies threaten the margins of established banks.
Despite the focus on blockchain technology that has preoccupied many banks in recent years, Sberbank and its US partner see equal or greater growth potential in services based on artificial intelligence (AI) or aimed at improving medical diagnosis, supply chains, online security and even educating pre-school children.
Gref said he was particularly touched by the presentation by Timur Sayfutdinov, CEO of MaxBionic, a specialist in prosthetic technologies that aims to assist the rehabilitation of patients who have undergone amputation.
Set up in 2014, the firm was founded by Timur Sayfutdinov and Maxim Lyashko after the latter lost his arm in a workplace accident. Its products include MeHand, a prosthetic device managed by machine rather than by a human. “We’re going to support you for sure and we will see what we can do for you,” pledged Sberbank’s CEO.