The Era of Continuous Innovation - University Innovation Ecosystems

SUMMARY: Strategies for creation, growth, and discovery draw on ecosystems and leverage partnerships to advance innovation capacity.

Author: Kobie Crowder on

The Proliferation of Innovation Capacity

Our society is amid a kinetic data revolution, emanating from transformational emerging technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, 5G wireless communications, cloud computing, and big data analytics (e.g., Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies), each proving increasingly durable and efficient at revealing evidence that continues to transform every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Emerging technology forbids complacency and requires a commitment to continuous innovation. The vanguard of this revolution has been universities that pursue the important missions of research and knowledge transfer that have served as the basis of economic prosperity, social mobility, and improvement in the quality of life through important breakthroughs in science, technology, and social understanding.

Universities have long understood the importance of innovation and have evolved strategies to remain on the cutting edge despite decades of reduced core funding from both federal and in some cases state and local levels. Along with changing demographics, emerging technologies, and educational delivery models, they face productivity challenges in an evolving higher education landscape, continual adaptation to external pressures of reduced funding, increased workforce development needs, and rising costs of education attainment. Universities require significant change management capability and technical assistance to execute the fundamental changes required to increase competitive position measured by attracting quality students and faculty, increasing patents and trademarks, and ensuring the transformation leads to institutional sustainability and student success.

Universities are not the only ones that are confronting an imperative to adapt to emerging technology. Indeed, to stay relevant and competitive, most organizations within government, public, and private sectors recognize the importance of continuous innovation and the underpinning challenge to design formal processes for adoption and deployment. Innovation involves a process of strategic planning to adapt to rapidly changing technologies and collaborate with non-traditional stakeholders in new and exciting ways. Given the vital role government and universities have in strengthening economies and improving our standard of living, these institutions are pledging significant resources and designing strategies to advance innovation capacity through cross-functional engagement and partnership with diverse stakeholders. Given the vastness of the technology research and innovation landscape, there is no shortage of partnerships and collaborative models initiated by both government and private industry. Yet there remains no clear holistic view of existing and applicable technologies currently researched or commercially available. This has resulted in multiple ecosystems with overlapping technology forcing a competition for resources, inefficient technology discovery and convoluted acquisition models.


Innovation capacity and business transformation require strong partnerships between the private and public sectors and integrated, enterprise-level strategy planning rather than a piece-part approach. Tools and resources can be developed to document best practices and make it easier for universities and public agencies to engage in enterprise-level strategy planning. However, to the extent this transformation is not integrated into the larger missions of education, public service, and research, universities and public agencies have traditionally struggled to develop the tools and resources to implement high-impact solutions, strengthen organizational capacities, and drive the work with change readiness diagnostic instruments and “models” that organize case studies of transformation.

Concurrently, the size and complexity of most federal agencies produces silos and further exacerbates difficulty in advancing innovation capacity, highlighted by Federal Acquisition Regulations (“FAR”) and procurement standards that very few people understand or are willing to invest an inordinate amount of time and effort to understand at the expense of pursuing private sector funding models for technology commercialization designed for efficiency and less bureaucratic authority.

Universities and public agencies have recognized lacking resources at the institution and technical assistance levels for enterprise-wide strategy planning and have relied on outside consultants for strategic planning ranging from the academic enterprise to business transformation, financial engineering, and revenue generation strategies. Advancing innovation capacity requires identifying trade-offs necessary to meet those goals, while prioritizing, sequencing, resourcing, and integrating capacity building solutions accordingly.

Nevertheless, these gaps remain with a growing need for business intelligence through analytical insights that incorporate data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies. Organizations increasingly require in-house business intelligence capabilities that are nimble and can adapt to rapidly changing technologies to gain better insights to inform decision making.

An innovation ecosystem that is unique and actionable should consider the following strategic levers -

  1. Innovation Partnerships and Collaboration

    Two characteristics of ecosystems require a rethinking of textbook management techniques, especially for more traditional participants. First, ecosystems are collaborative—they grow and strengthen through the continual interaction of all stakeholders— and the need for collaboration can trump more traditional competitive considerations. An automotive and an aerospace company might work with a startup on the development of next-generation batteries but so might two automakers, the startup, and a government agency because they all want the technology to come to market. Investors and companies typically have different goals and timeframes, but they each bring strengths that the entire ecosystem can benefit from, so they need to find ways to overcome such issues as conflicting exit strategies. Networks play an important role in collaboration because they foster the exchange of different ecosystem currencies. By interacting with universities, for example, companies and investors can learn about the latest ideas and even help determine how they are developed. Universities can learn about funders’ priorities and ways that developers of emerging technologies can go about building a nascent market. Any participant can take a technology that is not finding a market in one area and transfer it to another where it can solve different problems. Facilitators play a key role in connecting participants through a variety of vehicles, such as conferences and competitions. Finally, all participants can learn from failures. It is in the very nature of deep tech that many ventures will not succeed. But they will almost always impart lessons that can inform the next initiative or collaboration.

  2. Strategic Planning and Business Transformation with Emerging Technologies

    Build innovation capacity for universities to achieve optimal business operations and financial performance by embracing innovation and emerging technologies, integrating effective business strategy, and performance monitoring with business intelligence solutions. Emphasis should be on sustained productivity improvement by articulating strategies designed to improve efficiency, cut costs, increase revenues, and ensure accountability.

  3. Innovation Ecosystem Designed to Leverage Regional Assets and Connect to Physical Spaces to Accelerate Outcomes

    Firms today need to be able to interact with researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, as well as with other firms, to define new products and identify new markets. While the isolated inventor in a garage remains the stereotype of an innovator, research shows that 47 percent of new product and process innovations occur through external partnerships. Density and proximity help facilitate this type of collaboration. While labor moves within a shed of approximately 40 miles, knowledge sharing occurs at a scale of less than 1 mile (Carlino & Kerr, 2014).

Over time and in some cases due to necessity, universities have recognized the value collaboration with industry and stakeholder organizations to promote innovation and develop marketplaces for technology commercialization. In fact, strategic partnerships, and collaboration to drive innovation are by design mutually beneficial by leveraging unique strengths and capabilities.

Universities have led the charge with a particular focus on commercialization of new technologies proving vital to economic competitiveness and development. These efforts leverage the success of proven ecosystems, such as Silicon Valley, and have integrated regional designs to attract investors, mentorships, partnerships, and advance research and the overall innovation agenda. The innovation ecosystem is quite broad and ranges in areas of concentration, spending and investment, regional characteristics, and demographics (age, education level, foreign-born talent, state and local support, government policy, and employment in high-tech industries). In a recent report released by the George W. Bush Institute titled “The Innovation Impact of U.S. Universities, Rankings and Policy Conclusions”, the report suggests five takeaways for policy makers, business leaders, philanthropists, and communities.

  1. Increase public-sector support for university research

    The report suggests that most research institutions could increase innovation impact, if they had more resources to invest in research.

  2. Understand how institutions vary in their innovation impact productivity

    Smaller universities can achieve remarkable productivity in converting research inputs to outputs. Funders should consider the extent to which institutions not only do great research but are also effective in achieving innovation impact beyond the university’s walls.

  3. Compete hard for talent — including immigrant talent

    Metro areas with a relatively large foreign-born population share tend to host universities with high innovation impact. Localities can promote the innovation impact of local institutions by pursuing a welcoming approach to diverse populations, especially immigrants. While the competition for talent among localities may seem like a zero-sum game, the federal government can create positive-sum conditions by welcoming more skilled immigrants from abroad.

  4. Invest in integrated physical spaces connecting researchers with entrepreneurs, investors, and other potential nonacademic partners

    We show clear benefits from bringing faculty researchers into proximity with nonacademic entrepreneurs, venture capital firms, and other investors.

  5. Support technology transfer offices (TTO) and other enablers of innovation impact

    Funders should consider supporting expansion of TTOs and other innovation-promoting activities. The federal government should expand successful programs to support academic technology transfer such as the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM), National Institutes of Health REACH, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR). State governments should replicate programs like the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center.


Make it real – plan and budget for innovation. Innovation involves a process of strategic planning and business intelligence that provides data-driven analytical insights that incorporate machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies. Begin with goal formulation and focus on building internal capabilities to inform decision making and augment change management strategy. The goal is to enable all skill levels and generalists to leverage modern business intelligence core capabilities and gain knowledge and contribute to open-source platforms that will drive innovation in the future.


The Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking, "Assessing your innovation district: A how-to guide" - part of the Brookings Institution’s Centennial Scholar Initiative, 2018

George W. Bush Institute, "The Innovation Impact of U.S. Universities", June 2020