Innovation Networks Bring New Ideas to Market

Feb 12, 2013

Entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and others around the country are forming collaborative local, state, and regional innovation networks that are helping bring new products and services to market, and in the process, generating new jobs and economic activity.

A recent effort is underway in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in his State of the State Address the development of Innovation NY Network – a statewide network supporting collaboration between stakeholders in the innovation and entrepreneurial process with the goal of supporting local and regional growth.

Innovation networks give innovators and researchers access to new and growing businesses; they provide start-ups with mentoring and access to resources; and they connect investors with new lucrative opportunities. As with the Innovation NY Network, many such networks around the country focus on commercializing new ideas, bringing profitable products and services to market.

The idea that companies can benefit from a collaborative setting is not new. British economist Alfred Marshall wrote about the benefits of an “industrial atmosphere” in 1890, explaining that networks of small- and medium-sized companies create an environment where small firms can gain skills and knowledge that support innovation. Today’s innovation networks rely on a similar concept, creating a fertile environment for business collaboration.

“No [single] entrepreneur could bring the Boeing 787 to market,” says Robert Wolcott, co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. “When we can bring entrepreneurs together with established corporations, imagine what we can do…That’s part of the notion behind the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN).”

KIN links faculty from the Kellogg School of Management with business leaders, nonprofit groups and government. The collaboration between stakeholders helps university researchers focus their work on challenges facing entrepreneurs and others in the network. It also helps generate innovative activity that can yield breakthrough products and services. Other examples include:

  • CONNECT – Started at the University of Southern California-San Diego in 1984, the network is designed to accelerate commercialization of technological and life science innovations, focusing on the “beginning of the food chain,” when market potential is being assessed. Since its inception, CONNECT has helped more than 3,000 companies attract $10 billion in investments.

There are also efforts on the national level that leverage the regional benefit from innovation networks. JumpStart America (an effort from the non-profit accelerator JumpStart, Inc.) works around the country to support collaborative networks. The initiative began in Cleveland, Ohio in 2003, helping more than 350 companies create more than 6,000 jobs. The success in Ohio has attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and business leaders around the country, and the effort now boasts nearly 12,000 members with Startup America initiatives in 30 states, reports the New York Times.

National initiatives are also anchored in federal efforts. The U.S. Agriculture Department leads the Agricultural Technology Innovation Partnership program with nine state and regional economic development groups, which helps license new technologies or connect them with businesses. The Small Business Administration’s “clusters” initiative focuses on building “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, academic institutions, service providers and associated organizations with a specific industry focus” – effectively, innovation networks.

Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills was involved in clusters in her home state of Maine before coming to the SBA in 2009. “It became clear to me that if you're going to have a state of small businesses, which Maine is, you need them clustered together to get critical mass,”  Mills said in a 2009 interview, reflecting on a project to reinvigorate Maine's boat manufacturing industry. “Otherwise, you just end up trying to help each one, one at a time, which is very difficult. This kind of training and regional economic development—really understanding where jobs come from, really understanding how economies transform—is going to keep America competitive.”

The new ideas and inventions arising throughout the country hold promise for economic growth and prosperity, provided those innovations can be brought to market. While networks help make this possible, they do not on their own produce economic activity. That remains the province of entrepreneurs and business leaders.

“We foster prosperity through innovation,” says Wolcott. “I didn’t say that we create prosperity. I didn’t even say that we create the innovations or the concepts. We simply foster them.”

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