Innovation Hubs

Spotlight on Innovation Centers

Thriving new innovation hubs are emerging in cities across the nation—and often, universities are leading the way. Entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and established professionals collaborate in lively districts with restaurants, office buildings, research facilities, housing, and shops, bringing new ideas to the marketplace, along with economic value and new jobs. College Planning & Management recently spoke with Kevin Wayer, president of Public Institutions and Higher Education at JLL, to learn about how innovation hubs have evolved.

Q. How are innovation districts of today different than the research parks of the past?
Where traditional university research parks are enclaves of quiet discovery, colleges and universities today are adopting new models of town-gown collaboration. Some are refreshing their traditional research parks to create more “buzz,” while others like Drexel University in Philadelphia are developing dynamic live-learn-work-play gateway centers that revitalize neighborhoods and business districts.

In these dynamic business ecosystems, culture, workforce, and synergy are just as important as the real estate. Some include places for gathering, dining, shopping, and fitness amenities, along with conference centers and hotels.  

Modern innovation centers are integrated into the fabric of the larger community. For example, the Technology Square gateway center at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta has spurred significant economic development locally as a buzzing center of employers, researchers, and innovators. Similarly, The Ohio State University collaborated with the city of Columbus and community organizations to achieve its ambitious vision for South Campus Gateway, a major mixed-use development that has sparked community revitalization.

Over in Grand Rapids, MI, Michigan State University (MSU) is developing the Grand Rapids Innovation Park to spur collaboration and commercialization of new innovations with biomedical, bioengineering, and healthcare technology entrepreneurs. Located in downtown Grand Rapids, the park capitalizes on the momentum of the “Medical Mile” district that has grown to encompass several downtown city blocks. This innovation district follows the textbook definition of an innovation district—a geographic area where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.

Q. What are the benefits of an innovation district for university leaders, students, private-sector companies, and the broader community?
Universities are generally land- and asset-rich, and with these districts, they’re looking to diversify their revenue and spend the money they have more effectively. State universities, in particular, are seeing less funding for operational costs coming from the government than in the past, so the burden gets shifted towards tuition and research grants. Partnering on an innovation district with the private sector brings in critical investment in infrastructure.

By sparking inventions, an innovation district can bring direct financial benefits to a university. As it builds a track record of successful commercialization of inventions, an institution can increase its patent volume and potentially license patents to private companies. It also may be able to create spin-off enterprises with industry partners and become a powerful catalyst for job creation. These accomplishments can help the institution attract additional research funding to spur future innovations.

Innovation districts can help build a university’s brand reputation and boost their rankings, in turn helping attract and retain top faculty and students. Students gain, too, by having access to learning experiences and work opportunities with real-world impact. The ability to live, work, learn, and play is core to the modern urbanization movement and these districts enable that sense of place.

And, communities stand to benefit from all of these impacts. A lively innovation district brings more people into a neighborhood and attracts sustained investment by private industry.

Q. What types of universities are good candidates for considering an innovation development? What types of private sector organizations can find value in innovation districts?
Major research institutions are the typical candidates for innovation districts, especially those with strengths in life sciences, technology, and engineering. It’s helpful, too, when an institution occupies a large urban campus and controls highly valuable land. The availability of land in a community with a thriving business environment can open the door to public-private development opportunities that reduce the financial commitment—and the risk—for the university, and appeal to private industry collaborators.  

The most successful innovation centers leverage an institutional strength. 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 innovation facility, where it could gain easy access to all of the university’s cutting-edge resources and emerging talent.

No matter what advantages a university may have for creating an innovation hub, its success ultimately will depend on having a well-thought-out vision and a development plan based on smart financing strategies that reduce risk for the institution. And, the university must be able to take the long view, recognizing that the potential of the innovation district will unfold over time.