Considering an innovation practice? Think location, location, location

One of the greatest untapped innovation resources are world-class institutions of higher learning. Institutions of higher learning not only attract top talent but provide on-demand lab environments and nurture a culture of experimentation and continuous learning.

Last month,  we discussed why IT organization need to build an innovation practice. The premise of experimentation affords the opportunity to couple disruptive technologies like machine learning, biometrics, natural language processing and virtual/augmented reality with the potential to generate tangible business value. And for the IT industry as a whole, this is not just a novel venture, but perhaps a vehicle towards transforming a back-office sustainer into a core-business enabler.

Exploring university-based innovation

Your innovation journey may begin in many directions, but I will narrow the aperture and focus on one option: experimentation. For this facet of innovation to work, two important elements to consider are speed and cost. Said differently, you can’t afford to experiment with disruptive technologies if it is slow and expensive. Taking a year and a million dollars to ‘fail fast’ is more like ‘plain failure.’ It misses the point and the economics don’t add up.

With speed and cost in mind, we can move on to the ‘where’ on the journey. As the adage goes in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Establishing a physical space for your innovation practice truly comes in all shapes and sizes. For example, there are dedicated spaces that are co-located at an organization’s headquarters (i.e. Google) or centers of excellence established near technology hubs (i.e. Silicon Valley, California or Austin, Texas); all are good, and none are bad. However, when it comes to the facts of experimentation and the considerations for speed and cost, the merits of university-based locales are worth exploring.

In 2017, the top 100 universities, measured by utility patent grants, were granted over seven thousand US-based utility patents. This represents 2 percent of the total base of utility patents for the year. While this is a relative measure, it shows a significant output of invention and innovation by the global community of universities. The potential to leverage a treasure trove of research remains untapped relative to commercial application.     

Factors to consider that narrow the choices

When it comes to partnering with a university for your innovation needs the options are many and downright daunting. With over five thousand universities and colleges in the US alone, there are over twenty thousand institutions of higher learning worldwide. It might seem impossible to get your arms around the options, but luckily there are a few dimensions and resources that have worked for us in narrowing the choices so that we were positioned for success:


Let’s begin with an often-overlooked criteria – culture. In general, can your organization sustain success away from headquarters?  Is the culture used to operating with many remote or virtual teams?  The answers might weigh heavily into the proximity of your lab. For example, if your organization does not operate well with remote teams and the best choice is a university that publishes pertinent research and patent submissions, but is 1,200 miles away, consider a different university that is within proximity, even at the expense of the best in a category, like research-based patent submissions and grants.    

Research parks

Many universities have corporate hubs adjacent to their campus. These parks offer shared and often dedicated offices spaces, infrastructure, facility management, etc., where corporations can set up innovation labs and establish a presence to further engage with students and leverage university-based research. For example, establishing a dedicated lab at a university could enable a firm to hire students on a year-round basis.   


Possibly a provocative statement, I argue that location is analogous to talent in many ways. For me, one of the primary drivers in the selection process was finding a top five to top 20 university within the field of study I needed to leverage. For example, if I wanted to leverage student talent to develop software-based prototypes, I would consider a university that is ranked top 10 in computer science.

Start-up or accelerator programs

Many universities have programs that offer advice, funding, mentorships and an ecosystem designed to offer general support to teams that are anywhere within the spectrum of ideation, including well into the initial process of funding. Universities that either sponsor, partner or manage accelerator programs serve as good indicators of innovation. This means they not only get the concept but are making a concerted effort to foster innovation through activities like live pitch events to funding startups. As an example, your organization might sponsor a pitch event as a way to gain insight into ideas that could one day revolutionize your industry.


Universities are an amazing source for world-class research and innovation. The U.S. Patent Office offers a wealth of information on university-based patent submissions and grants. In addition, Thomson Reuters publishes yearly research that measures the commercial impact of university-based research, called “Reuters Top 100: The World's Most Innovative Universities.” For example, if your organization has a keen interest in artificial intelligence and its application in field of medicine, you might want to narrow your search for universities that have patent grants or industry-leading research in the field of artificial intelligence-based medical devices.        

Remember, you can’t afford to experiment with disruptive technologies if it takes too long and it costs too much. Experimentation that is low cost and rapidly delivers can take on many flavors, one of which taps into sources of unparalleled potential world-class institutions of higher learning.

This story, "Considering an innovation practice? Think location, location, location" was originally published by CIO.