10 steps for a successful college or university innovation center

Thriving new hubs of innovation are emerging in cities across the nation—and, often, universities are leading the way. Entrepreneurs, researchers, students and established professionals mingle and collaborate in lively districts with eclectic restaurants, office buildings, research facilities, housing and shops. In these live-work-learn-play environments, academic and industry collaborators bring new technologies and products from idea to the marketplace, along with economic value and new jobs.

Where the university research parks of the past were staid enclaves of quiet discovery, colleges and universities today are adopting new models of town-gown collaboration. Some are refreshing their traditional parks to create more “buzz,” while others are developing dynamic gateway centers that revitalize neighborhoods and business districts.

When it comes to creating a dynamic business ecosystem, culture, workforce and synergy are just as important as the real estate. Providing the right mix of facilities and participants takes thoughtful planning, along with capital and a sustainable business model.

Bringing these projects to life can be challenging. Drawing from our experience with leading research institutions, we’ve identified these 10 best practices for developing and maintaining thriving innovation hubs.

Vision and Planning

1. Start with a clear vision focused on your institutional mission and strengths.

Whether your institution is in a dense urban center or a small town, an innovation center can provide a valuable gateway between university talent and resources and the private sector. With thoughtful planning, you’ll bring together students, researchers, administrators, facilities, equipment and more to commercialize new technologies and breakthrough ideas emerging from your campus community. Your ambitions may encompass job creation and economic revitalization.

For example, connecting town and gown, and creating a vibrant “urban village” were among the goals of Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) for its award-winning Technology Square innovation center. Over time, the gateway has spurred significant economic development locally and become a buzzing ecosystem of leading employers, researchers and innovators.

A clear vision, goals and defined measures of success will guide your master development plan. Success metrics could include any of these measures:

  • Increased research grant funding
  • Patent volume
  • Number of spin-offs or patent licensing agreements with private companies
  • Faculty attraction and retention
  • Industry partners gained
  • School rankings

Toward these aims, it’s smart to leverage an institutional strength, whether in life sciences, biomedical engineering, cyber security, robotics or another field. Tailoring facilities for a specific research sector will differentiate your site and foster collaboration and community .

Be realistic about the types of research that will be of greatest interest to private industry. Consider your preferred balance of basic and applied research, and how the innovation center will fit into your larger institutional vision.

Your vision should include not only technical space, but also places for gathering, dining and shopping. Some innovation developments include conference centers and hotels, and fitness amenities, too. For the newest generation of scientists and innovators, a live-work-learn-play environment is what inspires collaboration and creativity.

2. Proximity is king

When choosing a site for your project, look close to home. Proximity will attract potential industry and community stakeholders seeking university talent and resources, and foster the spontaneous encounters of researchers and entrepreneurs that lead to great ideas. And, if you’re envisioning retail amenities—and you should be—those shops and restaurants will thrive on the foot traffic from both your campus and the surrounding area.

If you choose to forge a public-private partnership, your private developer partner will be a good source of information about the location preferences of prospective tenants. The partner will bring market intelligence about competing institutions and developments in your city, and can help you choose a site offering competitive advantage.

The site selection stage is also an ideal time to review your real estate portfolio as a whole and make sure that you’re making the most of your current assets. For instance, you might identify facilities or land that could be leased or sold, freeing resources to invest into your innovation hub.

State or local financial incentives may also influence location. For instance, your local government may have an interest in partnering with you to revitalize an underdeveloped area near your campus. Federal or state economic development programs could also drive the location of your project, while adding a positive boost to your business plan.

Stakeholders and Governance

3. Listen to your community early and often

As you develop your vision, you’ll need to identify and engage your stakeholders early in the process, because their support and assistance will help your project succeed. Your innovation hub will become a highly visible demonstration of your commitment to your most important stakeholders and the community.

For The Ohio State University, collaborating with the City of Columbus and community organizations was essential for achieving its ambitious vision of community revitalization and development of South Campus Gateway, a major mixed-use development. Involving these partners in the earliest planning stages led to smart development plans that ultimately generated hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic value.

While involvement from graduate students and post-doctoral associates may not be essential for executing your project, their needs and priorities should be first and foremost in the planning process. Depending on the scope of your undertaking, other stakeholders might include senior administrators, faculty, trustees, major donors, government officials, private industry executives and leaders of community organizations.

You’ll need to review your resources and capabilities, and consider what additional expertise is essential. Should you decide to engage external real estate or finance expertise, bring those advisors on board early, too. And, choose your partners wisely—you’ll be working together for several years or even longer as your innovation center evolves and possibly expands.

4. Governance matters, so take the lead

Launching your innovation center is only the beginning. To fully realize your ambitions for your project, you’ll need a thoughtful and empowered governance team that includes key stakeholders and a fulltime leader or team. Your private developer or a major private industry partners will want to be included in the governance—and they should be, as significant stakeholders.

Who will own the development? Some institutions prefer direct control, while others create an affiliated nonprofit or LLC, along with a governance board, to own the overall development and manage its long-term progress. Still others include an industry or government partner with an ownership stake. Whatever the structure, the economics of the project should enable funding of an executive director role.

As new participants join your innovation hub, a strong governance structure will help keep your vision and goals in the forefront. The school itself should serve as the lead “cheerleader,” bringing various parties together while managing the long-term programming of the innovation hub. Without continued control by the university, an innovation center can become unfocused and unsuccessful over time.

Funding and Finance

5. Don’t shy away from public-private partnerships for development know-how

For most university executives, an innovation development is a once-in-a-career project, and one of the most complex. Getting it right is tricky. You’ll face myriad technical details and moving parts, along with multiple stakeholders, partner organizations and funding sources.

Complexity is one reason some universities are using public-private partnerships (P3s) to execute their innovation developments. A P3 can give you access to essential real estate and market expertise, along with a source of financing, and can be designed to transfer risk from your institution to the private partner. Also important, a P3 enables you to conserve university resources for other priorities.

A P3 doesn’t mean giving up control of your project. For example, your institution could lease a parcel of land to a private developer to build an office building. Then, you could then lease back some or all of that new building. Or, you might partner with one company to develop a project and another to provide facility management or leasing services.

Since P3s are complex policy instruments, it’s helpful to have knowledgeable advisors on your team to guide the process. Also, you may need separate P3s for student housing, technical areas or retail spaces. The right advisor can ensure that your partnerships are structured around your institutional goals, and can help you select the most qualified private-sector partners.

6. Your innovation center is a future economic engine—ask for the public funding it deserves

Since your innovation center could become a powerful catalyst for job creation, economic development agencies may be very interested in helping your project succeed . For example, your municipal government may be willing to subsidize your project through tax increment financing (TIF) or infrastructure support. Local or state economic development agencies may have grant programs for R&D and entrepreneurship that could apply to your innovation center. Numerous federal grant programs and tax incentives may also apply.

Some universities have tapped the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, which incentivizes business and real estate investment in low-income communities. If your innovation hub fits local or state priorities, your project may qualify for sector-specific incentives, particularly if your vision encompasses urban renewal as well as university advancement. Or, perhaps your innovation center will warrant a land grant or other forms of financing that can make the undertaking much more economically viable.

7. Industry + university: Make the most of your industry relationships

Wherever your institution is located, you probably already have relationships with a dominant company in the sector your project aims to attract. Such a company could potentially become a major tenant in your innovation center. One Virginia university found, for example, that approximately 20 different university entities had relationships with a major semiconductor company. Armed with this knowledge, the university was able to secure the company as a tenant in a new facility. Again, access to university resources may be a compelling draw for potential tenants.

Be sure to consider your strongest areas of educational excellence. If you have a strong aerospace or chemical engineering program, for example, look for companies that seek recruits in those specialties. Don’t hesitate to look beyond your state lines—a company with distant headquarters may want a foothold to access your cutting-edge research and to recruit emerging workers.

Design and Develoment

8. Understand your tenants and keep them happy

Ultimately, your innovation hub will be only as successful as its tenant mix. To lead the way, the university itself must commit to being the first—and major—tenant. Your commitment will provide assurance for the construction financing, and will help attract industry tenants.

Beyond that major step, you’ll need to position your facilities around the needs of prospective tenants . A knowledgeable real estate advisor can help you understand what tenants need and help your facilities stand out from competing developments. For example, if you’ve created a P3, you can require the developer to fund capital investments and build-outs for tenants.

As you consider potential tenants, think broadly. Talk to faculty members and your real estate advisor about companies based elsewhere that might be interested in your talent and resources.

Also, don’t overlook the smallest start-ups. Universities such as Penn are leasing space to coworking providers such as Benjamin’s Desk or Convene to provide a collaborative environment for entrepreneurs. Coworking spaces help create “buzz” and bring in potential growth companies to invigorate your larger innovation center.

Even before move-in, responsive property management can help your tenants succeed. For example, R&D teams often have aggressive build-out schedules to meet funding deadlines. They may have unique requirements for protecting sensitive research materials or performing 24/7 experiments. To ensure responsive services, some universities retain third-party property management services qualified to support even the most demanding tenants.

9. Embrace the 18-hour live-work-collaborate environment

Like your campus, your innovation hub will need to appeal to the next generation of students, faculty, entrepreneurs and corporate partners. Today’s researchers and innovators expect not only the right kinds of technical facilities, but also supporting amenities for the 18-hour live-work-collaborate lifestyle. Adding restaurants, a hotel and conference center, walking trails, cafes and patios help create a sense of community and inspire the “accidental collisions” that lead to great new ideas. You might also want to add housing, whether for undergraduates or for graduates and post-doctoral staff with families.

Thinking “lifestyle” also will make your development more competitive. The larger picture is particularly important when you are competing with other institutions and amenities-rich innovation campuses created by major real estate developers. To maintain the edge, you’ll need to balance the cost of amenities versus the need to attract the participants you want.

10. You can’t predict the future, so plan for flexibility.

While it’s important to start with a vision and master plan, it’s equally important to remain open to changes in the execution. Research priorities and industries may change direction as new technologies enter the marketplace. New players may be attracted to your hub, requiring different kinds of facilities.

Older, traditional research parks, for example, often need a refresh to stay relevant. Don’t let a master plan interfere with necessary changes. For example, your plan may call for a mid-rise office building in Phase 4. Later on, you might instead add multifamily housing to increase density and support more amenities in a true community environment.

Some buildings may become outdated as needs change. You may find you have too much square footage for web labs and not enough for computational science. Or, you need to add more fabrication space. Developing flexible spaces from the onset will help your team to more easily adapt to these changing needs over the years.

Your future is bright—and evolving

Whatever your vision, the potential of your innovation center will unfold over time. A long view is essential when momentum grows over years or even decades, rather than months. Be aware that the plan you have today will undoubtedly evolve.

At every stage, consider what the next phase could look like and what kinds of partners could be involved. You may need different developers for different kinds of properties—you wouldn’t expect a hotel developer to know how to build a design and fabrication facility, for instance. You may need ongoing expertise to mitigate risks at every stage and to bring the perspective of potential third-party development partners and potential tenants.

The most successful innovation centers begin with a strong foundation and a smart strategy toward your goals . With the right partners and proven practices, you’re creating not just a place to work, but a place where innovation can thrive.

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