Developing an innovation eco-system centred around an entirely new university doesn’t occur very often.  However, this is what happened when a recently established university in Kazakhstan asked Cambridge Enterprise for input into the development of its commercialisation infrastructure and capabilities. 

Kazakhstan, a vast country in central Asia, is perhaps best known as the home of the Baikonur space launch site. Baikonur was used to launch the first satellite, the first manned spacecraft and, more recently, the first British astronaut on the International Space Station. 

Following Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, President Nursultan Nazarbayev embarked on a rapid programme of modernisation and international collaboration. This involved, Among other things, this involved moving the capital from the country’s largest city, Almaty, to the city of Astana in the spacious northern steppe region in 1997. By 2010, Astana had more than doubled in size and the President decided to establish an entirely new research university there, in partnership with a number of major universities in the US, Singapore and UK, including the University of Cambridge.  

In 2012, before the newly-founded Nazarbayev University had even produced any graduates, Cambridge Enterprise was asked to provide advice on the concept and development strategy for an “intellectual and innovative cluster” around the University. This ambitious development would  encompass a commercialisation office, business incubation facility, science and technology park, prototyping centre and investment fund. The task was to undertake a critical examination of the basic concept and to produce a viable strategy for its development. 

It was clear that such a broad scope would require input not only from Cambridge Enterprise, but also from elsewhere in the University, the wider Cambridge Cluster and beyond. Fortunately, Cambridge’s strong networks enabled the creation of an advisory panel of experts on technology commercialisation, science park development and management, business incubator management, economic development and innovation policy. The panel included Mrs Anne Lonsdale, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and former Provost and member of the Board of Trustees of Nazarbayev University.

Cambridge Enterprise’s long experience and readiness to understand the challenges of very early stage technology transfer and innovation in a very different culture have been a major asset in getting started. Their readiness to bring in a range of expertise from outside Cambridge Enterprise itself so that they could address the broad scope of this assignment was particularly significant.

Anne Lonsdale, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and former Provost and member of the Board of Trustees of Nazarbayev University

Over a period of three months, the panel, including Anne Lonsdale, reviewed and analysed the economy, technology markets and existing innovation capabilities of Kazakhstan and produced recommendations on the focus areas of the innovative cluster as well as on issues such as its mission, relevant legislation, operational models, governance, staffing, physical layout and sizes of the facilities, phasing, funding options, marketing strategy and likely impacts. 

Since the panel submitted its report in December 2012, the commercialisation office and business incubator have become operational and the Technological Park was officially opened in July 2014.