Increasing visibility of the role of the university in innovation ecosystems

As universities of science and technology provide increasingly important roles in innovation ecosystems, we also need to communicate more about the contribution made, say Yvonne Kinnaird, Morten Dalhgaard and Tim Bedford
2nd October 2020
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In 2018, CEASER published a white paper titled ‘The Role of Universities in Innovation Ecosystems’. Whilst well-received and circulated, nearly two years later, this theme remains high on the agenda for Task Force Innovation and for the European Commission with the upcoming launch of Horizon Europe.

During a meeting in June together with Isidro Ballesteros (Cabinet Expert on Innovation for Commissioner Gabriel, European Commission) and the Task Force Innovation we agreed that there is still much to do in this area. Universities are sometimes incorrectly seen as a homogenous body of organisations and there is a persistent idea in some circles that innovation at universities is mainly supported in bureaucratic activities related to technology transfer offices, unfortunately creating an image of being a ‘barrier’ instead of a ‘facilitator’.

There is therefore an urgent need for us to be vocal and visible with the efforts from across our Members, to help ensure this view is updated.

Universities of science and technology are notable as we often take on a trusted role as the ‘glue’ in innovation ecosystems. By acting as an anchor institution, the university, in collaboration with industry partners, local and national governments, and others, is in a unique role as a leader (note ‘a’ leader and not necessarily ‘the’ leader) in innovation ecosystems.

Examples are numerous amongst our members, including:

  • The University of Strathclyde is a leading facilitator and contributor to the partnership which forms the Glasgow City Innovation District, where local authority and government enterprise agencies have come together to support a development supporting a range of businesses in one area within the city centre, all based around the university campus, which plays a central role both physically, and in the management of the district, with the right infrastructure in place to support organisations with a focus on talent, collaboration and success.
  • Together with all Austrian universities and affiliated partners, TU Wien is part of the consortium of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer Centres. The goal is to support knowledge transfer through a series of cooperation projects focussing on awareness and visibility, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, infrastructure, and social sciences, humanities and arts.
  • Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya’s (UPC) Innovation Hubs concept is based on a partnership between UPC and companies to generate open innovation by facilitating access to UPC talent and knowledge, taking advantage of UPC capabilities, and applying corporate venturing tools. The Innovation Hubs are the framework for cooperation between both institutions in the short and medium term (time horizon 3 years), and include those actions and programmes of interest to the client company according to the company's innovation strategy. The mission for the UPC Innovation Ecosystems is a better exploitation of the different UPC Innovation resources and an increased capacity for generating innovation, directing it to the territorial industrial fabric with the aim of positioning the UPC as a reference partner and as a provider of innovation generation for companies and contributing to social and economic development.
  • Green Hub Denmark is a collaboration between municipalities, citizens, utility sector, industry and Aalborg University, creating a large-scale setup for test and demonstration of technologies in the green transition. In partnerships across competencies, organizations and business models, Green Hub Denmark has the goal of creating reduction in carbon dioxide emissions while creating jobs and welfare. Researchers will contribute in projects from basic research to demonstration, and across academic disciplines.

Still in 2020, it is clear that the visibility of these efforts could be better, especially at the European level where universities are sometimes seen as a homogenous group. The Task Force Innovation aims to highlight the distinctiveness of universities of science and technology with our extensive experience of operating in innovation ecosystems.

In the Task Force Innovation, we are exploring pathways towards increasing the visibility of universities and specifically the expanding role of technology transfer offices, innovation support and related services, in the management and support of innovation ecosystems.

Utilisation of research and knowledge exchange has never had such a high profile as during the global Covid-19 pandemic, including the diverse and urgent challenges associated with securing supply chains and providing healthcare, testing, equipment and a range of research, and often in conjunction with a range of partners in our local, national, and international ecosystem involving industry partners and healthcare providers.

At the University of Strathclyde our involvement has incorporated many areas of our research strengths, in both manufacturing, where the University has co-ordinated the supply and manufacture of personal protective equipment from the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS) of which the university is the anchor institution; and from our science faculty contributing to the work supporting the development of a nucleic acid-based vaccine with colleagues at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI).

We need to maintain this exposure to science and technology and the ecosystems which work hard to bring results, new technology and vital assistance to hospitals and health professionals amongst others. Our Members are playing a key role as anchor institutions in innovation, and now is the time to be clear and vocal about the role of universities, their importance in knowledge generation and exchange, and as a leading actor in innovation ecosystems.

Yvonne Kinnard, Secretary of Task Force Innovation, and KE Policy & Outreach Manager at the University of Strathclyde

Morten Dahlgaard, Leader of subgroup Innovation Ecosystems in Task Force Innovation, and Deputy Director of Innovation at Aalborg University

Tim Bedford, Chair of Task Force Innovation, and Associate Principal at the University of Strathclyde

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