On April 12, 2011 my flight from Dublin to Rome came to a standstill at Fiumicino airport. It was a short walk to the rail link that brought me to the heart of the eternal city. Already the memory of my bruising defeat in the Irish general election, a month previous, was beginning to fade. The memories would linger but the hurt had already dissipated. The Rome sunshine made me upbeat and, the following day, I would face into one of the most fateful appointments of my life – a job interview with one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

By some reckonings Viktor Vekselberg’s personal net worth was put at $18 billion dollars. In my previous work in business, before entering politics, I had worked with and frequently met wealthy business people. But this was a different level. Our meeting was to be a face-to-face discussion, a kind of informal interview. I imagine it was designed to establish trust.

At home, hardly a day went by without a call from the bank manager insisting I put some order back into my finances. My accounts were well over drawn and there was little discernible prospect of righting them in the short term. Forbearance from the bank would have been great but hardly warranted in the circumstances.


The British politician classicist Enoch Powell once concluded, in dismal fashion, that “all political lives end in failure.” Mine had too. One month on from the election I was in the same position as any man who has lost his job; bills to pay, children to feed and the haunting question – what do I do now?

It is not as if I hadn’t anticipated our defeat, but it still throws in its own desperation when it actually occurs. My Blackberry was still there but hardly stirring. As a minister, I would have to re-charge it three times during a day such was the usage. Now it just lay there eerily silent. Few, if anybody, needs or wants to contact you once the power of public office has drained away. All of my personal effects, the familiar lever arch files, and computer records had been saved, bundled into large cardboard boxes and lay inert back in my apartment, piled in the corner – a silent witness to all that was left from a 14 year career in parliament and in government.

In the weeks after the general election people on the streets of Dublin would console you, clap you on the back and say things like “you’ll bounce back.” It is as if they believe there is some little place, or haven, that ex-politicians go to relax and wait until they get back on the merry-go-round again. I had to sort myself out. The bank had already been making noises before the election result and due to the downturn in the economy my brother, the Minister for Finance, had cut the pay of ministers by around 30%, a measure that disproportionately affected those of non-cabinet rank. In my case the finances were worse because I was now maintaining two homes due to my separation from my wife of 16 years.

The economy generally in Ireland had, in the immortal words of my late brother Brian, come to a “shuddering halt.” There was little or no room for manoeuvre. A forced programme of cuts, austerity and a battening down of the hatches was required. There was little or no room for complacency about this. I had been amongst the foremost in urging him to bring the axe to bear swiftly on public spending and other drastic measures. Both he and I resolved in the August of 2008 that action on his part had to be as open and up front as possible. His directness on the need for a significant correction of the fiscal position often took people by surprise, not least many of his cabinet colleagues.

Unlike other of his predecessors, who tended to shield themselves from public interviews, I urged him to embrace the media and communicate the urgency of the situation directly to the public. It was ironically to make him popular with the public but not always with his ministerial colleagues. In these frenetic three years from 2008 and 2011 I became very close to my brother, proffering my advice, attending meetings for him and keeping in contact with international bankers as well as local executives of the big banks.

More often than not it was easier for me to meet with them on an informal basis rather than he to do so in the full glare of media scrutiny that accompanied the well-publicised events of the financial crisis including the controversial banking guarantee.

The Irish economy is particularly vulnerable to an adverse movement in the international economy. In trade and investment terms Ireland is one of the most open economies in the world for its small size, 90% of what is produced in the country is for export. A huge percentage of those exports come for large multinationals that locate in Ireland for tax reasons, access to talent and proximity to EU and wider European markets. When the US economy goes backwards, they get a cold but Ireland gets a full blown flu.

Much of my work in government was pitching to these multinationals in my role as Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation. At one stage I was the minister of choice to pitch in front of the senior executives of these companies to push them to locate in Ireland, mainly because of my previous role in business prior to my election to the Dail. My role, in investment terms, was better known outside Ireland than inside the country – something that proved crucial when it came to the interest from Russia in getting to go and work there.

An approach from the East

In the wake of the election I had taken advice from a wide array of friends active in business and other spheres. The advice suggested very forcefully, despite my experience, that there would not be much by way of jobs for me in Ireland. Feelings were still very raw about the downturn and someone from my background was unlikely to be besieged with offers to work in Ireland. I had taken the opportunity of the time available to me to travel and meet friends abroad to alert them that I was available and in need of work.  

It was while on a trip to London that a call came in from an unexpected source. A US based businessman and friend got on the phone inquiring where I was. There was a note of urgency in his voice and he was anxious to catch up with me quickly. He foreshortened his stay in both Moscow and Kiev to travel to London to meet me. I knew from his tone he had something serious to discuss. A day or two later he was ensconced in the Lanesborough Hotel and we were strolling around Hyde Park, deep in discussion.

He spoke fluent Russian, having left there in the late 1970s when his family benefitted from one of the Brezhnev visa exit schemes to the US. He had just returned and altered his travel plans just to meet me. He told me that a day or two prior to his departure from Moscow he had recommended me for a position to some business friends of his there, whom he believed, were Kremlin connected.

The decision to recommend me had come about as he had heard them discuss a project called Skolkovo – a Russian effort to replicate the success of Silicon Valley in the United States. Before he left, the same contacts had got back to me indicating they would like to meet me. He had got the sense that they had thoroughly checked me out and it was not simply desk-top research via the internet.

My friend was wealthy in his own right having operated in the technology sector for many years and even he was excited about the prospects of my being involved in the project. Vekselberg, while he did not know him, was a very serious guy indeed, he told me as we walked.

I flew back to Dublin to prepare myself and do as much research on the project that I could possibly do. He would keep me informed and put me in touch with the advisor to Vekselberg whom he had met in the course of his own business meetings in Moscow. By any reckoning it looked like a very exciting opportunity.

Schooling up for an oligarch

Russian President Vladimir Putin with businessman Viktor Vekselberg during an awarding ceremony in Moscow’s Kremlin in 2017.

A week late the advisor to Vekselberg made contact and a short conversation ensued. He asked me to forward a curriculum vitae and said he would ring back in a matter of days, certainly before the week was out. In keeping with my previous habit with regards to preparation, for both business and public life, I threw myself into my own research on Russia and the specifics of the Skolkovo project. I sent a short CV that I thought would suffice for now. The research was largely derived from online sources and supplemented by books I had bought and telephone calls I had made to contacts, both home and abroad, who had dealings with Russia.

Within days there was a stack of printed paperwork, alongside my new and temporary office desk on Stephens Green, that was as high as myself. I devoured everything I felt was relevant, to the point where I was beginning to feel I knew this man Vekselberg. The research I did was akin to the deep dive I would take in the first month of a new ministry, where I always believed that within a very short period I needed to be as conversant with the policy and operational realities of the new job as any of the senior serving civil servants in the department.

I needed to be prepared as I had never actually visited or had any substantive contact with Russia at any point in my political or previous business – or indeed journalistic career. My only knowledge was a very brief course in Russian history that stretched back to my time studying history and political science in University College Dublin. Of course, I had read a number of works of Russian literature, but the Moscow opportunity was focused on technology and science. A bout of reading on Russian science was part of my effort to read myself into the brief.

His first request was a longer version of my curriculum vitae. I inquired how long was needed?

True to form the thoroughly Russian-accented advisor was on the phone by the end of the week with a short text message that it would be desirable to talk for an hour in the afternoon with the time specified. There seemed little option to vary the time, but this was nothing to quibble about.

His first request was a longer version of my curriculum vitae. I inquired how long was needed? The impression I got was they wanted everything specified. I said I would have it for him the next day. The rest of the conversation centred on dates – Vekselberg had a very busy travel schedule and I, as it happened, had booked a business visit to Nigeria to help a couple of business friends out there conclude a long-drawn out potential deal.

The Russian advisor and I chopped around with dates. He and I eventually settled on a mid-April meeting in Rome as that was likely to prove the only location in the next few weeks that could afford the chance to meet – subject of course to his confirmation that this suited. A day or so later the curriculum vitae emailed on and deemed to be satisfactory the advisor was back confirming the dates and suggesting place to stay which would be proximate to the Hotel where Vekselberg was staying.

“Fifteen minutes if he does not like you”

My trawl through the online sources continued and I also intensified my contact with friends and acquaintances that had anything by way of a connection to Russia. As I had served both in the department of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice it was relatively easy to access professional analysis from people who had served there or done business there.

I also had quite a few friendships at UN level and there was no shortage of people there who had dealt with the Russians and had a view about them. The overall impression of Vekselberg was that he was a relatively low-profile oligarch when compared to people like Abramovich and Deripaska, who in different ways, had become household names in the western media for their lavish lifestyles, yachts and ownership of a football club. Apart from two very high-profile industrial investments in Switzerland he seemed to be very careful about any type of media appearances. He tended to stick to his brief and the topic of Skolkovo in his interviews. He was a graduate of the Locomotive university and had a doctorate. The only splash of glamour appeared to be his purchase for $90 million of the Faberge egg collection of the US Forbes publishing family, one of the largest such collections in private hands.

As a connected individual in Russia and tax resident of the Swiss canton of Zug, he had been asked by the Kremlin establishment to lead a new project called Skolkovo which would involve the physical build-out of a new innovation hub on the outskirts of Moscow complete with 35,000 residents, researchers, scientists, 1,000 Russian start-ups and inevitably the world’s prestige corporates that perform scientific, tech and engineering R&D. It was about adapting the old Soviet concept of the closed science city but putting it on a modern basis in imitation of and admiration for the successes of Silicon Valley.

What impressed me most, as I read through the voluminous coverage of the project beside my desk, was the sheer scale and ambition of the project. The then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev was the early champion and sponsor of the initiative and Putin (then resting as his Prime Minister) was also a supporter. Medvedev had paid a series of visits to the US and to its recognised tech industry sites, as well as a highly publicised visit to MIT in Boston where it was announced they were to bring about a MIT-like Research University at the Skolkovo site. The Skolkovo board had a collection of the great and the good drawn from the US tech giants and Nobel prize winning scientists from both Russian and the United States.

Given the importance of the meeting with Vekselberg, as well as a certain nervousness on my part, I decided to book into Rome a full two days before the meeting so that I could acclimatise and relax for what I regarded as an intriguing opportunity and a chance to do well. I have always believed that in business as well as politics it is important to arrive early and prepared rather than potentially late and flustered for a key meeting. The telephone conversations with the advisor had been long and often detailed. They served as a kind of proxy interview. It was clear the advisor, far from being just a facilitator, was his senior person on the project and working at a personal level directly with Vekselberg. The advisor, like me, was taking no chances and wanted a clear picture of what I would be like when I met his boss. For his part, the advisor gave no hostages to fortune; there was a degree of familiarity but the bottom line was he was giving little or nothing away as to his intentions.

My Russian friend and I mounted the lift and were whisked to the upstairs breakfast room.

The appointment was set for the morning of the 14th of April at the aptly named Hotel de Russie where Vekselberg was staying. It was located in that narrow, but fashionable street, between the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. I had contemplated staying in the same hotel but opted instead to stay in an apart hotel a few hundred yards down the street that was more relaxed and had no dining room. The day before I re-read my notes and strolled around the Italian capital. I popped into the hotel and inquired from one of the managers where the breakfast room was and went upstairs to reconnoitre the likely location for our meeting. The next day I finally met the advisor who gave me the customary handshake and suggested we get going to meet the man himself. On the way into the hotel I asked him how long this would last in a reference to the meeting.

“Fifteen minutes if he doesn’t like you,” was the cryptic reply from my new-found Russian friend. I soon got to learn that this sense of foreboding and fatalism was not just a characteristic of his but a general attitude of mind in Russia. To many Russians things are often assumed to be, as a matter of fact, bound to get worse rather than better. The fifteen minutes warning reminded me not to talk too much and definitely not nervously look at my watch. The street right up to the entrance of the hotel was crowded with expensive Mercedes limousines. On both sides of the street there were drivers hanging about, some 30 in all, with most of them nervously anticipating a request of some kind. It was only when I heard the Russian language being spoken that I realised all of these cars were part of his extended business entourage.

Inside in the hotel reception there was this hubbub of activity, women in designer outfits, men in suits, all clutching cases or folders of documents, all hanging around for a word with the oligarch. My Russian friend and I mounted the lift and were whisked to the upstairs breakfast room.

Breakfast with Victor

Conor Lenihan worked extensively with Viktor Vekselberg

The breakfast room was crowded and Vekselberg came across to me and apologised. The manager whom I’d met the previous night in the hotel came racing over and said “Mr Lenihan, I shall find somewhere for you to sit.” It was a nice surprise given that I had only met him the night before. Then Vekselberg suggested we could have the meeting in his suite at the top of the hotel. In the small lift we exchanged courtesies and small talk. I tried to take him in. He was three or four years senior to me, bearded and casually dressed in a tee-shirt. Between him, me and the advisor I was the most formally dressed in suit and tie.

Once seated upstairs a coffee was brought and the discussion began. I opted to stay quiet and only speak when he had finished. Out of caution I framed questions carefully about the project and its state of readiness. It was easy to talk with him. The advisor said nothing, and seemed to defer to his boss throughout the discussion. To my initial assessment, he appeared thankfully informal, more managerial and consultative than I had fully expected. He also spoke English slowly, preferring simple statements rather than overly ornate constructions.

I wanted to get a sense about him and his commitment to the project. Often high net worth individuals give their time to a public project but in effect it boils down to a few people seconded from their operation and a showpiece commitment in terms of time. The conversation ranged over a lot of topics; ministerial office, innovation management, construction, big tech and the challenges facing a project of this kind. It was a pleasure to listen to him. He was very much on top of his brief. The conversation rolled on, back and forth. I began to understand that I had already got the job and that the discussion was just to establish if I was an all-right person to deal with on an interpersonal basis. He indicated he wanted me on board but confessed he wasn’t sure in what role exactly. For my part I indicated my enthusiasm about the project but that I did not want to make a commitment to joining them unless I was sure I was the right fit for them. I asked could I come over to Moscow, see the operation, and then tell them if I thought I could make a contribution to their efforts. The idea was that I would meet his team and find out directly how things worked. I promised I would not waste their time and could go there in the next week to two weeks. We committed to getting the dates and arranging the Moscow visit. It had been a good meeting. It was only on leaving the suite I checked my watch and realised we had been talking for two hours. With the words of the advisor “fifteen minutes if he doesn’t like you” ringing in my ears I deemed the meeting to have been a success.

Before leaving the Hotel Vekselberg’s advisor asked: “You are coming tonight. You are invited, aren’t you?”

As we got up from our seats, I asked him: “How much time are you giving this project.?” It stunned me when he stated bluntly, “70%.” Over the years from my work in the private sector I had experienced situations where wealthy individuals had given their name or support to a project, of a public nature, but it was fairly rare for them to give that level of commitment. I was soon to know that he was not just doing this but also committing significant people and resources from his own operation to the state funded project.

This last utterance by Vekselberg was something of a clincher for me. I really felt the project was worthwhile getting involved with. So often, well-meant public projects, with big egos involved go horribly wrong because there is a lot of high level support but no practical , driving personality, at the centre of it to make sure people do what they are meant to do. It can as a reassurance to me that I was not just being asked to come in to substitute for him, Vekselberg, in some manner but rather work directly with him on an ongoing basis.

Before leaving the Hotel Vekselberg’s advisor asked: “You are coming tonight. You are invited, aren’t you?”

Faberge eggs, Vatican museums and the opera

This comment referred to an exhibition of Vekselberg’s Faberge egg collection at the Vatican Museum. The museum was closed for restoration but was being specially opened to accommodate the collection. I asked for two more invites for friends who had agreed to meet me that night in Rome. The event itself resembled a diplomatic reception with worthy people from the art world, Russia, diplomacy, business, and government all present. To my surprise and his, the event was attended by Ambassador Noel Fahy, our then emissary to the Vatican. It was the kind of event a month or two prior to this I would have been attending as a minister, except on this occasion, thankfully I had not any duties to perform nor speech to deliver. The Vatican’s most senior official, under the Pope, made a speech, as did the culture ministers from both Russia and Italy. The speeches were long and drawn out. When Viktor Vekselberg spoke he kept it brief simply saying that the collection was something to be seen rather than talked about.

I went back to my hotel room that night satisfied. The telephone interviews, the one to one with Vekselberg and the party had gone well.

There are just nine eggs in the collection of around 120 items. Most of the jewellery or designs by Faberge are of religious significance; crucifixes, and beautifully inlaid miniature paintings of the Madonna and Child that formed gifts to members of the Russian Tsar’s family as well as between them as family. These would be revered items in the Russian Orthodox tradition and Vekselberg had put them in a Charitable Trust so that they could be toured around the world with the items ultimately owned by the Russian state and his gift to his own country.

I went over to Vekselberg to thank him before leaving the event. He seemed a little surprised. He wanted me and my friends to come to a birthday party that was being thrown for him in the American Villa in Rome. I had known it was his birthday from my research but had not mentioned it, at any stage, thinking it was more a private thing. There were limousines and minibuses outside to whisk us away to the party. The party itself was an elegant affair with most of his key executives from his various companies around the world flown in to be present. His shareholding partners, key advisors and his extended friendship group from Russia all present. It was a marvellous event with a singer from the Mariinsky Opera Theatre performing for the 300 guests. She did a medley of operatic and traditional Russian folk melodies. The diva moved amongst the audience pulling men and women out to dance.

I went back to my hotel room that night satisfied. The telephone interviews, the one to one with Vekselberg and the party had gone well. The advisor seemed determined to introduce me to as many of the key people as possible, in the time allowed, before dinner. It was as if people were being let know that I was one of the group or at the very least joining the team. The dinner guests were a very interesting collection in their own right ranging across Europe, the States, and of course involved in a diverse set of business and investment activities. I was one of the few non-Russians in the room. There were a number of big ticket academic and scientific advisors as well as key people from the Russian state apparatus. Back in the hotel I reflected that a significant opportunity was in the offing but neither he (Vekselberg ) nor I had made a formal commitment. The next move in the step by step courtship would be the visit to Moscow. They were a decent group of people, which gave me encouragement.

Discussing money, and packing up

Skolkovo Innovation Centre outside Moscow

I had said at our opening meeting to Vekselberg that if I was to be involved, I would prefer I was embedded in the operation itself rather than travelling in or out of Moscow. He seemed surprised and encouraged that I would consider re-locating to Moscow if the opportunity and the role was significant. This flexibility on my part helped a great deal.

During the week in Moscow a chauffeur was put at my disposal and he brought me to the office each day to meet with key members of the team. Neither they nor I were aware of what role I might be in line to fulfil with the Foundation. The Skolkovo Foundation was established to bring about the innovation hub on the outermost ring road in Moscow. An estimated $10 billion was being allocated by the state to bring the thing about. At this stage work had hardly begun on the actual site in the Skolkovo suburb so the Skolkovo Foundation was based at the World Trade Centre office, a complex nestled beside the Moskva river and adjacent to the famous White House that had been shelled during the Yeltsin moves against the 1990s attempted military coup.

The office complex was old with a brand new modern, additional tower that was occupied by the Foundation. The old office complex was the first purpose built high rise office building in Moscow and had been built by Armand Hammer, the famous Jewish-American tycoon (Occidental Petroleum) with strong Soviet connections throughout the Cold War but beginning at the outset of the revolution when, as a businessman, he offered to help Lenin.

Over the next few days, I met with the staff. They were a blended mixture of people from Vekselberg’s businesses, academia, scientists, and a lot who had got working experience outside of Russia in either consultancy (Goldman Sachs, McKinsey etc) or with large hedge funds and venture capital. There was only a handful of ex pats and they were American, British, and French. They tended to be technical or research specialists, rather than the general consultancy types. On the last day of my meetings there was just one – with Vekselberg before I left for the airport. After an initial discussion on the project he asked would I join them? I said yes, I was very encouraged by what I had seen and heard. He then said it was time to talk about compensation.

I replied that I hated talking about money to which he casually stated: “We must” To kick things off he asked me: “How much do those Ministers get paid in Ireland?” I gave him the range of pay scale between a Minister of State and what the Taoiseach of Ireland got paid at the time. He suggested a round figure that was a significant multiple of what the Taoiseach earned. It was too good to turn down. I replied “That’s great. Now we don’t have to talk about money. We should really discuss what job I am to perform.”

The upshot of it all was I was being chauffeured to the airport. We had shaken hands on what my work would involve. He felt it would be best for me to join as an advisor to him initially, while the paperwork for my work visa and the documentation was being prepared. There was a lot of bureaucracy around this, but he was anxious to move fast and have me on board as an advisor before taking up a role as Vice President of the Foundation, reporting directly to him and nobody else. He said we would work together on carving out the precise role and design it between ourselves.

I packed my stuff at home and put all of my personal belongings and possessions into storage. I prepared for my new life in Moscow.

I, at my own initiative, suggested that I would supply him with my own analysis and insight into how the project could be further moved forward. The broad agreement between us was that my role would be on the international side of the Foundation’s work and, as if to re-affirm this, I had attended during my stay an evening gathering of visiting senior venture capitalists from Europe in an event that was being hosted by the Foundation. These were partner level and owner level venture capitalists and they were very curious to know what a former Irish Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation was doing in Moscow. I kept it vague and that I had been asked to come over and advise Mr Vekselberg, whom I had met recently.

I packed my stuff at home and put all of my personal belongings and possessions into storage. I prepared for my new life in Moscow. I had a personal assistant allocated to me by the Foundation back in Moscow and informally one of his trusted employees was dedicated to me to show me the ropes and effectively be my Sherpa, number two and general guide to the rest of the organisation. I had told them that the consulting part of my engagement should run through to August and a one-month break then before I took up the Vice President role.

That break allowed me to spend time with my children and get things tidied up back in Ireland before taking up my three-year appointment in the role in Moscow. During the consulting phase it turned out that they most needed someone like me to pitch to the large multinational corporations (MNCs) that they were hoping to lure and land their R&D presence at the Skolkovo site. I was given the task of self-assembling my own inward investment team and getting out there to attract these companies to come to Skolkovo and Russia.

Roadshows and high level meetings

Skolkovo Innovation Centre outside Moscow

The role agreed between Vekselberg and I proved appropriate. There was no dedicated, single team in the organisation devoted to the business development of the Foundation’s relationship with the global corporates. The plan, on paper, was to get at least 35 of these to settle at the location. To date, 11 large companies including Siemens, Cisco and Microsoft had signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with Skolkovo which effectively signalled their intention to support the project but these paper commitments fell well short of a hard promise to invest.

My job was to convert these 11 into operational R&D investments with research themes and numbers to be involved specified. The MOU device had been the handiest way to involve big companies in the overall effort when it was at its “flag waving” or launch phase. With the project moving more into an operational or more mature phase it was becoming important to get tangible commitments and indicative outlines of how much space these companies would require at the site.

Vekselberg himself had been doing all heavy lifting in this area before my arrival. The idea was that I would take up the mainstay of this work while bringing him in at the opening of a relationship with a particular target company and he and I coming back in at the end when a deal needed to be concluded. I and my team would conduct the bulk of the negotiation rather than bogging down both parties in discussions with the various moving parts of our own organisation. I began a trawl around the Foundation to find people who could be transformed into business development roles.  This was not easy because the people who were good for business development roles were generally good at their existing jobs and I did not want to get the hackles up of line directors by being seen to take key people off them. There was a delicate process to the hiring of the team.

The operation did not need to be big, so it was better to recruit from within and from among people we were already familiar with. In the end there were only 14 people on the team. The emphasis was on getting people who could be put in front of clients and build a careful but significant relationship with the target companies. I and Viktor were to be used if we needed to scale up higher on the ladder of these companies in our efforts to close a deal with them. In other words, Viktor and I only dealt with CEOs, chairs of Boards, owners, chief technology officers and senior decision makers.

There was great interest amongst the business people present and a little amusement at the idea that it was more than my job was worth to sign an MOU.

Prior to my arrival the process of attracting big companies was split between different parts of the organisation and had the appearance of being haphazard with luck playing its part in those who decided to sign up with the opportunity. It was also proving difficult to move companies on from their MOU holding status to doing meaningful work with us. The problem with MOUs, both in government and in investment, is that nobody in the organisation takes responsibility for implementing them. They are mainly a device for principals from both sides to look important and be seen to be making a commitment of some kind. Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, had criticised the Foundation at one of its reporting sessions, I discovered, stating that the MOUs were not binding agreements. It was a valid criticism. 

During one particular road show in Europe an enthusiastic Prime Minister suggested to Vekselberg, over lunch, that we could sign an MOU. Viktor looked a little bit pained in the face at the suggestion but passed it over to me. There were leading business people and industrialists from the country around the table. Politely, I indicated that we were no longer signing MOUs and I would probably be sacked by Mr Vekselberg if I signed the organisation up for another one. We were now moving candidate companies into formal agreements which could take anything from two months to four months to complete.

There was great interest amongst the business people present and a little amusement at the idea that it was more than my job was worth to sign an MOU. Businesses preferred going straight in and it reassured them that the project was in fact investment based and not some political pet project that might never happen.

Working side by side with a billionaire

Over the next three years I and the 14-member team raised $1.2 billion dollars in R&D investments for the project. It was not done entirely on our own but rather in collaboration with the rest of the Foundation’s 300 or so employees. The most significant thing we did was to sit down for a day and work out what metrics we should apply to potential target companies. In the past, the organisation would have hired an expensive consultant to report on how to do this. I insisted that we do it ourselves and come up with an accurate set of metrics that would determine who we would approach.

My view was that we were wasting a lot of our time with companies, or leads, generated from outside our team which were taking up a lot of our time and not necessarily leading to a result in a timely fashion. The targeting exercise gave us a benchmark against which to judge whether the company was suitable to sign up before we bothered to make contact with them. The metrics included measures which defined our existing cohort of companies who had signed up ( existing customers ) and additional metrics to cover new potential customers.

The refreshing thing was that when we fed these new metrics into the existing customers we had already attracted, it appeared that our instincts had been correct and all but two or three of the existing multinational corporations fitted within the new profile provided by the metrics. The target policy meant we no longer wasted time on companies who did not fit with our metrics but if they had approached us we could fit them into some role or investment with the Foundation but not as we described the companies we attracted, “Key Partners.”

In a period of less than three years, we converted the existing MOU holders into real R&D agreements and brought the total number of companies to 30.

It was a significant achievement and led to me travelling all over the world to meet with senior executives of large global companies like Intel, Siemens, IBM, Cisco, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Boeing, EADS, Alstom and Schneider Electric. Some global conferences counted as good value given the head count of CEOs that would attend. Skolkovo sponsored Davos as an event and it proved useful, not for the discussions, but rather the opportunity to get senior level buy-in to an R&D project that was in our pipeline.

We did not see it as a suitable place to develop new business and at a maximum we would be prepared to meet four people. The informal events in the evening around the town of Davos, as distinct to the conference itself, were worthwhile from a networking point of view. It is always difficult to get space in a CEO’s diary, not because of lack of willingness, but rather because of the travel schedule they are committed to.

He was very easy to work with and he rarely, if ever lost his public at internal management or other kinds of meetings. He had this extraordinary patience and way of putting things across.

The annual event organised by Mike Milliken, with his institute, in Los Angeles is another good example of where value is to be obtained due to the footfall of senior people and CEOs present. I was very delighted when Mike asked me to be a guest speaker at one of his panel discussions. He is one of the most remarkable and intelligent people I have ever met.

This was not done on our own as a team. We had significant senior level executives and owners who were on the board of Skolkovo or prepared to help us.  People like Craig Barrett ( former CEO of Intel ), Martin Buyugues ( Buyuges telecom ), Eric Schmidt ( Google ), John Chambers (CEO of Cisco ) and a myriad of other connected people that either Viktor would bring to the table or would be directed towards us by key figures in the Kremlin or the wider Russian state apparatus.

Frequently Vekselbeg and I would present together at meetings or roadshows in different locations across Europe. The format of these roadshows was big. In effect because of his status as billionaire and head of the important state innovation project, he would be treated in the same way as a visiting head of state. In Israel he would meet the President and visit the Knesset, as well as sitting down to lunch with the big investment players in the country. The role I carried out with him offered me this great insight into the words of diplomacy, investment and business at a very senior level.

He was very easy to work with and he rarely, if ever lost his public at internal management or other kinds of meetings. He had this extraordinary patience and way of putting things across. The wonder was that in all of the various important meetings we had to attend we never had to, self consciously rehearse or role play out different roles. In that respect it was great working with him.

The three years working and living in Moscow gave me a very welcome insight into the business rules of the Moscow game.

If you become a billionaire in Russia and inevitably become wrapped up with the Kremlin powers that be, it is an intensely delicate tight rope that you walk between the personal, your private company and then how your wealth interacts with the public realm.  Few survive this gruelling process and the wear and tear as between what is private and what is public. Vekselberg has survived in this world for quite a number of years and it shows in his simplicity of communication, level of sophistication and a genuinely intellectual grasp of the challenge or task in hand.

It is very unusual when you work, as I have done, with high achievers both in the realm of politics and business not to see them even once put a foot wrong. Vekselberg never involves himself in a meeting where there is no opportunity for a result or outcome. This is one of his great saving graces.  The Russian system for people at his level could grind many others down. There have been very senior level people who have fallen into favour only to fall out again very suddenly and abruptly. The three years working and living in Moscow gave me a very welcome insight into the business rules of the Moscow game. It also gave me great insight on how the rest of the world responds or fails to respond to the opportunity that Russia represents.

Fear and loathing, as well as, a stereotype view appear to dominate the Western World’s relationship with Russia. More often than not I find that the reaction is mistaken due to an over investment in imagination as to what the Russian’s are up to. It was interesting to hear the talk of people who had attended the Russian hosted World Cup. They expressed surprise at how much they enjoyed the event and how well it was run. As Bismarck said of the Russian Cavalry – they are slow to saddle up but ride very fast once they do.

Conor Lenihan is a former Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation, having spent 14 years as a Deputy in Leinster House. From 2011 to 2014 he worked and lived in Moscow as a Vice President of the Skolkovo Foundation, a large scale innovation project funded by the Russian Federal Government.  He is a board member with San Leon Energy who are a quoted company in London. He advises companies and individuals on raising investment.