Meet Mikhail Ryabokon – Head of innovation at Noosphere, COO at Noosphere Ventures, co-founder of Noosphere Engineering School. Mikhail believes that breakthrough technologies will be offered by young people and dreams to open University that will train Ukrainian students in accordance with world trends.
Mikhail prefers to talk about technological achievements in the global context, as Ukraine is part of the global market. He enthusiastically talks about what he saw at international exhibitions and dreams that some day these awesome things will appear in Ukraine. Mikhail does not like to talk about his achievements, and in any success of the company sees the merit of the specific engineers.
What is your professional background?
I’m a military man. For 18 years I have served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, took it from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. Eventually resigned and started a new life.
In 2009, I joined Maxima Group as an advertising manager. It all started with Google AdWords, then I went to building partner networks and managing partner traffic. And then I created my first project. We bought Proavto.ua platform, but we didn’t like the engine, so we decided to rebuild everything and create a web-site Rul.ua to compare car prices.
When we made the platform self-sustainable, I was offered another project. We bought Price.ua, when the project was falling apart, and I got the position of a crisis manager. Old project managers said that without them nothing would work. But I had a different opinion, and it worked.
Surprisingly sales managers on the project were divided into two categories – those who were selling high-tech and not high-tech products. For those who were selling tech, things always went better, because their customers were large retailers and stores. They willingly spent their marketing budgets on such a promotion. Meanwhile, we tried to build the platform, where you could buy everything: from socks to the TV-sets.
Sales managers engaged in non-tech areas mainly dealt with small shops, that did not have large advertising budgets. High-tech managers could attract a couple of clients per month and their earnings were enough. Sales-managers who dealt with non-high-tech clients worked hard and often missed on their sales-plans, losing motivation eventually.
I suggested abandoning such a system. Is it fair that the manager who sells, lets say socks, is not important? He is important. Does he make less cold calls? No. Does he get fewer refusals? No. Why his salary is calculated unfair? We decided to measure success of a manager in terms of the number of calls he made and the status of calls. Old managers opposed a new system. They quit to other projects. Meanwhile, our team started to grow, hungry managers began to show good results, and I have been entrusted with the whole Eastern European region. Eventually I switched to another industry and joined Noosphere family.
How does Noosphere work in the Space industry?
Noosphere is a very special ecosystem. It is a group of companies absolutely independent from legal and financial point of view, who are united by the idea of changing the world according to the philosophy of Vladimir Vernadsky (“Noosphere” is a term suggested by Vernadsky – ed.). Noosphere is powered by the energy of its visionary founder – Max Polyakov. Among the members of Noosphere both classic IT projects and serious hardware companies, such as Firefly Aerospace may be found.
The heart of Noosphere ecosystem is investment fund – Noosphere Ventures, headquartered in San Francisco. There is a decision-making center, that provides advising on how to built the full-circle business: from training system to manufacturing.
Until recently Noosphere founder Max Polyakov has been involved in scientific activities and social projects. Just over a year ago, he returned to operational activities – became a CEO of EOS (company that analyzes satellite data – ed.). He also acts as advisor in Firefly Aerospace.
In order to reduce the cost of carrier and compete with SpaceX and other companies, it is necessary to properly manage the work in 3 key areas: design, marketing and manufacturing.
Firefly Aerospace does the work both in Texas, and in Ukraine. American and Ukrainian engineers work together. You can’t say, whether the final product is American or a Ukrainian one. People from all over the world participate, and the final product is international. Early in XX century Vladimir Vernadsky forecasted that the national boundaries of the states would disappear. Few people understood what he meant, but today that’s our reality.
What do you do in Noosphere?
I am responsible for innovations. Where are innovations born? In young minds, which are not yet engrossed in bureaucracy. They have not yet a stiffened brain, they have not worked in design bureaus, where there are standards. These youngsters are creative, they offer very interesting things, new techniques, technologies and materials.
Let’s take 3D printing. Even in the space industry few companies use 3D printing in production. In the USA that’s only a SpaceX that mastered 3D printing and uses it in engine manufacturing. Some people are also using 3D printing to produce small components.
Meanwhile, we have already 3D-printed several engines and successfully tested them. The team from Space Systems Engineering (company that develops satellite platform – ed.) mastered the technology, which allows to make such engines.
My task is to create environments where people can meet, exchange ideas, gather in teams and put their vision into life. To serve this purpose we launched Noosphere Engineering School, Vernadsky Challenge, BestRoboFest.
Omar Hatamle, Head of Innovation at NASA, said that 3D printing is one of the most interesting technologies for NASA, and it’s crucially important for space exploration. How did you start working with 3D printing?
3 years ago in the engineering school at Dnipro National University (DNU) a laboratory was opened. They have brought the first 3D-printer, tried to understand, where it can be applied. 3D printing is a technology that is suitable for producing single copies, where the most even external contours are needed. 3D printing is too expensive technology for mass production.
How does Noosphere Engineering School interact with Universities in Ukraine?
Noosphere association members decided that they won’t take people from enterprises, but rather work with students shaping their worldview and the perception of technology from scratch.
Three years ago we made friends with Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. University Rector, Mikhail Zgurovsky launched a startup school – Sikorsky Challenge. It is an accelerator that gives knowledge necessary for Internet of things. However accelerator didn’t show any major breakthrough.
We decided to expand this movement and opened the first prototyping laboratory at DNU. The laboratory gives an insight into how you can explore the market and find your niche, what products are needed, how to monetize them, grow, scale, receive grants.
Sikorsky Challenge mission was to help young talents find an investor and with his help bring product to the market. We had a vision that we should not only help find an investor, but also help teams reach the profitability level without investment injections. If the product turns out to be interesting, investor will find the company and offer to invest. But this will happen on the fair and equal terms, rather than cases, when founders’ shares are diluted, and they stay with only a few percents of the company. We want people who invented a product to build their own business, and create jobs.
We chose a narrow area for the laboratory – engineering, because it is related to real life. Then we opened one more laboratory. In those laboratories startups can build prototypes, while still studying at the University. Soon we found like-minded people – ARTKB company. This team made prototypes for many commercially successful products. ARTKB joined in and continue to give advice to young talents.
Now we plan to open several more laboratories in technical Universities: in Kyiv T.Shevchenko National University. Then in Rivne National University of Water Management and Nature Resources – there will be mainly the processing of satellite data, the study of nature use, building an Earth monitoring system. Also we plan to open laboratory in Cherkassy State Technological University.
Few solutions, that are now working in Ukraine have been developed in laboratory of the DNU. The first one is “ArtOS” (an “intelligent” artillery system that calculates coordinates for aiming a cannon – ed.). ArtOs passed the test and received a state compliance certificate. That is an example, when student project made it into a real life.
The second project – “My Police” – a system of interaction between citizens and the police (allows you to call the police through the mobile application and send your coordinates – ed.). This is an engineering solution, that has server back-end, terminal front-ends for the police and mobile application for citizens. We are now connecting the fourth region of Ukraine.
What is needed for students to get into your labs? Is there an interview?
It’s enough to come and participate in the events that take place in these centers. In 2018 we plan to held a series of space hackathons. It will be necessary to make a prototype rocket, which will be able to raise the payload to a height of 3 km. That would be something like a satellite that will observe surface, measure temperature, wind speed, etc. It is necessary to design the engine, power supply system, controls, and separately – the payload and ground complex, which will receive information.
What will the winner get?
We will choose the best ideas, and help authors to continue building a rocket. Everyone in his University will develop a solution made of composite materials. Students will gain experience in teamwork, 3D modeling, design. They will understand that both the engineer and manufacturer need to work together. In fact, this is the work of a real enterprise, only on a smaller scale and with a smaller team. Then there will be real test. Eventually these people will be ready to work in any space company.
Do students from different laboratories share experience with each other?
On 11 of November DNU Hackathon will be broadcasted live to our laboratories in the cities I mentioned. Everyone can connect online. We are also discussing partnership with American Council, who will connect tech Universities in the United States to share their experience with Ukrainian teams. Also we are negotiating with Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.
Is there demand for such solutions in the real space industry?
Yes. We cooperate with many companies in the space industry. Firefly Aerospace works with companies in the United States, manufactures engines, composite tanks, control systems and is a member of the Noosphere Association. We also cooperate with Spanish company Deimos, British company Skyrora.
We have American company Aurora Flight Sciences among our friends. Together we run rocket modeling contests. In Ukraine EOS and SSE companies are a part of Noosphere, they process satellite data and produce spacecrafts.
An experimental complex to conduct training suborbital flights is being developed right now. In SSE they plan to build a small rocket, that will raise the payload to 1 kilometer height. By doing so, they will check their capabilities, system performance, get more experience to create other products for space industry.
What enterprises do you consider to be your base?
The factories are built from scratch. The team inspired people who graduated from space-related faculties. Some used to work in the space industry at “YuzhMash”, “Yuzhnoye” design office. These people united for change. It is hard for Ukraine as a state to implement efficient space programs. Ukraine is not a consumer of space products.
Noosphere is NGO. And a number of our stalwarts is increasing day by day. Our ecosystem has united companies in different industries and is represented in 19 countries already. In private business everything changes quickly and you need to adapt fast. What were the smartphones 5 years ago and what are they now? Everything goes in the direction of simplification, speed growth, energy efficiency. And all this is implemented by private companies. Obviously those companies who invest in space exploration become more efficient.
Perhaps, the space industry is the last one, where the role of the state has long remained unshakable. Now we are witnessing a kind of revolution: the growth of the influence of private companies.
How do you build a community of scientists, engineers, students?
We did our best to allow students of polytechnic Universities with basic fundamental knowledge go and work at laboratory. Education in Ukraine is good, but people lack access to modern technologies. Max Polyakov and Dmitry Sholomko (Google Ukraine CEO – ed.) launched Vernadsky Challenge program. The prize is 2 million UAH ($77,000 – ed.). The contest allows the startup, that made a prototype in the engineering center, to bring it to the market. This is not an investment, no one is claiming a share. This is a grant.
There is no sense looking at Ukrainian market. We need to consider global markets. Ukrainian education does not teach you how to sell. We want change that through our engineering centers and accelerators. Remember Apple last presentation? No special changes were introduced in their product line. Certainly, they mentioned neural networks, but still there was no breakthrough, like we used to see between the first models. However, Apple still presents every step as a great one. This is the correct position. Apple successfully sells its products, and they are not cheap. There are alternative solutions, cheaper and with no less quality. But Apple has a brand, hence sales. We need to learn from Apple.
In Ukraine there are not so many minerals, and we buy them. If you build a product that is meant for internal market only, it’s a hobby. If not – you need to learn how to sell on a global scale.
What changes do you think are needed in Ukrainian education?
Education in the world is different. I attended a conference about drones in Switzerland 2 weeks ago. In this country there are more than 10 drone producers. In Lausanne there is a Federal Polytechnic School. Students showed the top 10 cases that they are currently building using their own components and electronics, not Chinese.
Using drones they learned how to deliver blood from transfusion center to the hospital in 15 minutes. If the weather doesn’t permit, then the blood can be delivered in the old way by car, but it takes 1,5 hours. Drones fly faster and in automatic mode, they don’t need a driver.
Students also learned how to make 6 drones coordinate with each other. Operator manipulates only one drone, which controls all the others. All done by students.
Laboratory was created by the state, but the state finances it only partially. The funds are provided by private companies, which are interested in the development of modern control systems. Students write course papers and thesis, they show real cases that could be useful in life. I believe this is the right approach to education and investments.
Do you want to do the same in Ukraine?
We do our best to change the approach to education in Ukraine. Many things still depend on legal stuff and the will of Universities to change.
Tell us about the success of students who have completed your engineering school.
We have students who joined us at their graduation year. Their group was designing an engine. The engine was manufactured, released, tested and showed a cool result. They got their Master’s degree and now work in SSE company perfecting that engine.
Do you better like working with young people or experienced teams?
Usually breakthrough ideas are offered by young people. At the same time youngsters get lots of criticism from people who learned their lessons manufacturing staff. Experienced experts advise how to find workarounds and get the things done.
There is Vladimir Kukushkin, who no works in SSE. He is an engineer who made rockets in the Soviet era, which started from submarines and from the railroad. Vladimir Ivanovich works with young people and teaches them what possibly can go wrong. Vladimir Ivanovich knows physics well. Physics on Earth and in Space is different. In Space there is vacuum and also the temperature is different. On Earth you need to take into account atmospheric influence, the speed and direction of the wind. Things that work on Earth may not work in space. And vice versa.
What are students’ interests now?
Remember, in 90’s there was a spike in number of accountants and lawyers? Now everyone in Ukraine wants to work in IT industry. Everyone wants to be a programmer. But no one wants to be a marketing specialist or project manager in IT projects. Why did we start our movement in Universities? That is exactly because students are not taught these skills.
Every profession is important. However, only by joining efforts people will be able to create products that change lives. Take, for example, a wearable bracelet. This is not a medical device – it’s a collaboration of programmer, electronics engineer, medic, analyst who processes data, marketing expert, who researched the market and knows how to sell the bracelet. Several specialties team up to create a product. Rockets are not just about engineering. Building rockets requires many professions united around one interesting device.
You talk so much about space, and do it very enthusiastically. Does the work take a lot of your time?
No time for lunch.
Do you have any time for a hobby?
Work is my hobby at the moment. I used to have few hobbies, but I abandoned them. Absolutely no time for it.
Last year Noosphere supported the World Championship for space models. You were one of the organizers. Why is it interesting to you?
Noosphere founder Max Poliakov had mainly software projects in his portfolio. He acted like investor, manager, advisor. Being a successful serial entrepreneur, he managed to accumulate a certain amount of money available for investing. He wanted to invest into something, that nobody had ever done before. And also he had a dream to make a hardware project.
We have a remarkable person in our team – Igor Lvovich Khanin, 78 years old. He used to be a Director of Lavochkin NPO. Igor Khanin built “Orbit” – a control system for the Energy-Buran program. We decided to try build a satellite (Mikhail refers to the company SETS, that produces electric propulsion systems for space vehicles – ed.). But in order to get experience and train, we decided to start with small rockets.
In rocket modeling you can find not only enthusiasts. American team at the World Championship had very interesting people: space engineers from NASA, Alaska Aerospace, Aurora Flight Sciences. These are famous companies!
In Forbes column you wrote that the World Championship is a chance for the country to show its space developments and get contracts. Did you succeed?
There are joint projects. Some people who came to the Championship are now working with us in American office. We continue to cooperate with them and share interesting ideas and contacts. We are making great progress thanks to the close connection with these people. Unfortunately, I can not name concrete projects.
What is the most interesting project for you in Noosphere?
I am now involved in so many projects, that I don’t have enough time for myself and my family. I dive deep into stuff in the morning, return back home in the evening, get some sleep and then go back to work again.
In Ukraine we are slow. Although people say that Ukrainians are very persistent, i don’t believe it’s true. For me it’s faster to organize the production of small series in China than in Ukraine. People in Ukraine either do not take these orders, or they think the price is too low. Many reasons.
If you develop technological solutions, then every minute counts. The faster you enter the market, the faster you’ll get the clients. Every minute of delay can result in big losses. Many people don’t understand this. That’s why it is very difficult to build business plans in Ukraine.
Are you talking about the state also? As far as I know, our legislation is not great for engaging in serious science-intensive developments.
We don’t make products for the state. Rather, we give away for free our products, that could be useful for the country, as a volunteer aid. However, we do interact with the state to improve legislation.
Educational system in Ukraine until the last years was at the level of 60-s. It’s not an easy task to set up your own University. In the US everything is simpler – you create University, start teaching students. In 4 years a commission comes to you to assess how high your students are in the general ranking and give you a certain level of accreditation.
If you want to launch University in Ukraine, you need to build 1000 square meters library and buy 300,000 books – to comply with standards. Then inspector will come and check if you run your University according to the state standards. We are a private company, and we do everything to guarantee results, and not focus on reporting.
Would you like to open University in Ukraine?
Yes. Although it’s very hard. Meanwhile, we prefer to help our colleagues, who teach students and let them keep up with the newest technologies.
Author: Nina Glushchenko.
Photo: Olga Kokoshko.