benefits of innovation districts with typing man

The Benefits of Innovation Districts

At universities across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, innovation districts are emerging as one of the most effective ways to combine learning with industry experience for students of business, technology and science. Designed to allow students to develop innovative concepts with professionals from the business and financial sectors, and to secure contacts with potential employers in advance of graduating, innovation districts provide students with hands-on experience in their chosen industries.

A joint study conducted between the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) and the Technology Partnership Practice (TPP) found that innovation districts collectively span at least 47,000 acres and employ more than 300,000 people across North America. Some of these districts are situated on pre-existing universities, while others expand from university grounds and encompass nearby labs. In some cases, innovation districts even serve as midway parks between adjacent universities.

Statistic on innovation districts and how they employee with stacked book on the right side

Each job in an innovation district produces roughly 2.57 jobs in a corresponding industry. When you consider how this multiplies in the real world, the aforementioned figure of 300,000 translates to more than 750,000 industry positions, which makes the industry district opportunity fairly lucrative for students as they transition to the workforce.

The Purpose of Innovation Districts

For cities, innovation districts serve as gateways to the global economy by way of the business, science and technology sectors. The model works by fusing the various elements that comprise an economic powerhouse. Gifted students are drawn to the environment through institutes of higher learning. Those students, in turn, are nurtured within the class setting and then linked with third-party entities in the realms of business, tech and science.

gifted students and higher education with students walking around school

From there, the student uses his or her newfound connections to develop ideas in collaboration with staff from applicable industries. Some students use the opportunity to scope out employment with participating companies, while others go the entrepreneurial route. Ultimately, many students choose to remain in the area of the innovation district due to the opportunities present.

Some of the world's earliest innovation districts were founded around Stanford University in the early 1950s. Innovation districts strive to join parties that can offer help to technological development teams. For example, intellectual property lawyers can assist developers in bringing commercial tech concepts to life.

Innovation districts are an appealing draw to students of select majors who are at a crossroads as they mull the prospects of post-college life. With the industry contacts and employment opportunities that often arise in the research park setting, students who participate in these programs often settle their post-graduation options in advance. Simply put, instead of moving to other cities to scope out employment offers, students at innovation districts often choose to remain local due to the opportunities at hand.

The Start of Innovation Districts

Before the first innovation districts formed in the 1950s, universities taught students the skills of chosen disciplines, and it was up to each graduate to go out and make his or her own contacts in the corresponding industry.

From their inception, the idea behind innovation districts has been to allow researchers to develop product ideas in collaboration with experts in the commercial sector. The benefits of innovation districts alleviate much of the worry students have when they enroll as business or science majors, thanks in large part to the relatively high success rate graduates have had over the years in landing relevant industry jobs.

Since the beginning, the majority of innovation districts have been set up by universities, but laboratories and local branches of government have also embraced the concept. The benefits of university research parks have been recognized by businesses and federal agencies, where new employees have come on board with greater-than-average skill sets thanks to the experience and knowledge they gained at innovation districts.

Research Park Trends Around the World

In recent years, innovation districts have grown in popularity outside the United States and Canada. Overseas, universities and companies have latched on to the concept as the best way to help students pair their studies with hands-on experience in a chosen industry, while gaining real-world contacts in the process.

overseas universities and hands-on experience and smiling student

Today, there are more than 460 innovation districts across Eurasia, and the collective employment number at these facilities exceeds 380,000. In the parts of Europe that have seen the most research park growth, as well as in the Far East, innovation districts have made it possible for local students to develop new ideas with input from industry professionals, who in turn find valuable young talent in the process.

While each research park is tied to certain local objectives, the common goal among innovation districts around the globe is to create a space that nurtures new ideas, and where students gain access to their chosen industries. When a student develops a product idea that — theoretically, at least — could take an industry by storm, professionals from the industry in question work with the student on honing the idea into something with commercial potential.

The access students gain to a given industry is especially important, because this allows graduates to smoothly transition to the profession of their choosing. When you consider the uncertainties so many students face as they approach graduation — especially students who major in less lucrative disciplines — the increased certainties of industry placement through innovation districts is an invaluable asset.

Three Models of Innovation Districts

Innovation districts have come to be grouped into three different categories — the anchor model, the re-imagined township model and the science park model. In the first of those models, a university and nearby business, tech or science institution combine grounds in the center or along the outskirts of an urban environment.

3 categories of innovation districts graphic

In the re-imagined township model, educational and corporate entities create a new innovation district by leasing old warehouses in an urban setting. One of the most clear-cut examples of this model is the once-abandoned warehouse district of South Lake Union in Seattle, which has been renovated into a group of facilities that specialize in tech and science.

The science park model accounts for innovation districts that have come together on suburban office parks. Often times, the universities, businesses and labs that participate in the district are native to the area, and simply opt to combine efforts for mutual benefits.

An innovation district could theoretically be created in any U.S. city, large or small. However, the entities that form such districts are not always situated in close enough proximity. For an innovation center to form and thrive, it needs to have a variety entities — anchor businesses, research campuses, landowners, investors, local governments, etc. — joined in a particular area with a common goal.

The Archetype of Innovation Districts

There are numerous differences between the many innovation districts around the world. While the initial concept was to create a middle ground between universities and businesses, innovation district trends in recent years have also brought federal agencies and laboratories under the tent, and this has created even more opportunities for students.

One of the first ever innovation parks, Research Triangle Park (RTP), remains one of the most widely known. For nearly 60 years, the park has been an opportunity maker for students who wish to make impressions and gain footholds in the industries that play key roles in the local economy.

Founded in 1959, the park has served from the start as a linking ground between three universities across the North Carolina townships of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill — Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina. With its widespread layout, students who are active in the recreation park often do lots of walking between regular classrooms and other facilities, but a shuttle system also helps account for the distances.

While its legacy as an epicenter of global innovation is debatable, RTP has unquestionably been a major player in the economy of North Carolina, where students who become involved with the recreation park gain valuable experience with some of the major players in the worlds of science and business. In the decades since its inception, RTP has continued to spur innovation district trends.

RTP has been a magnet for companies in the life sciences industry, with companies large and small drawn to the expansive innovation district. Through the pool of upcoming talent among the students at the research park, big companies can find prospects for future employment, while startups can find talent to complete their teams.

Companies and Innovation Districts

More than half of the park's 170 companies employ fewer than 25 people, yet RTP has also courted major companies like IBM. Many students have been able to smoothly transition from their majors to well-paying positions in the industries of hardware, software and nanotechnology, thanks to skills and experience gained at RTP.

statistic on small business and woman at triple monitor desk

Innovation districts work mostly with companies that are already established, though research parks have also put together programs to help participants get new companies off the ground. For students who develop groundbreaking ideas that they wish to market under their own company name, the contacts and relationships these students are able to develop — in the industry as well as among the student body — help to bring these ideas to life.

RTP has six programs designed to help new companies get started. When taken in combination with North Carolina's grant programs, startups in the state have numerous ways to succeed with innovative ideas. In fact, according to a popular saying among those involved with the research park, it's harder for students to fail than it is for them to succeed when they pursue higher education in the state.

Student Needs and Innovation Districts

RTP has also faced challenges over the years, largely due to zoning and transportation issues. After all, the innovation district is spread among three different universities in North Carolina, and a student's daily schedule can be spread out across great distances.

To address these concerns, the innovation district has redeveloped its infrastructure to make transportation more accessible for students, many of whom don’t own cars.

infrastructure for students to succeed and studying on a couch

As such, the lesson for other research parks to take note of is that students must have soft infrastructure — education — as well as hard infrastructure — transportation — to succeed. While it's wonderful and enriching to have the classes and the lab time, students must also be able to get to the right place at the right time.

In Maryland, a somewhat different state of affairs has been witnessed — namely, the emergence of a meeting ground between academic and corporate culture. Traditionally, a gap has existed between the two cultures, because the nature of exploring and developing ideas in a student environment is different than the culture of companies.

This mending of the gap is due to the unique mix of business and government entities that surround the University of Maryland (UMD), where the breakdown of innovation barriers has spurred the progress of research. The process of conceiving and developing original ideas is, in many ways, contrary to any culture that stresses compliance for a common vision, yet the latter is the essence of business culture.

Nonetheless, this gap has been largely erased by the innovations at UMD, where progress has been made possible by an advanced understanding of compliance regulations, which students traditionally gain no exposure to until after they've graduated and entered the workforce.

The issue boils down to the fact that innovators are generally non-compliant by nature. Whether the innovator is an idealistic student or a seasoned talent with a long set of accomplishments, innovators are more prone to work independently than to work as a group.

The problem that surrounds the issue of bridging the gap between the individual innovator and the compliancy expectations of business culture are worked out in the research park environment, which bridges the dichotomy. For example, if there's a project requiring off-campus private research, the grounds of an innovation district can provide space for such an undertaking.

Federal Involvement With Innovation Districts

Another goal of innovation districts, especially in recent years, has been to offer students the opportunity to work on ideas with federal entities. This provides the opportunity for students to prepare themselves for careers in the public sector or, alternately, help in the co-creation of concepts that could ultimately advance the operations of government. For example, students at the research park of UMD gain access to the facilities of several government agencies, including the following:

·         National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction

·         National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center

·         The Department of Defense-funded Center for Advanced Study of Language

·         The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

One of the more significant aspects of the relationship between the UMD innovation district and federal agencies is the FDA’s food safety program. Here, students with innovative and enterprising ideas get the opportunity to test and advance their concepts with some of the federal staff involved in the policymaking behind food safety regulations.

goal to offer students opportunities to work with federal entities and smiling businesswoman

Due to the worldwide reach of the food market, the most effective way to guarantee food safety is through the encouragement of international standards based on FDA recommendations. As students in applicable programs gain exposure to these processes through innovation district growth and access to agency labs, students come away with a professional understanding of the standards on which domestic and foreign food policies are based.

guarantee food safety through international standards from FDA and picture of tall federal brick building

To accommodate foreign students who are barred from entering the FDA labs, UMD provides a space within its recreation park where staff from the federal agency can train international attendees. As innovation district trends point to the increased involvement of federal agencies in the research park concept, students who enroll in the applicable programs continue to gain valuable exposure and hands-on experience with the functions of government.

Lab-Initiated Innovation Districts

The concept has also started to work both ways, as the lab branches of federal agencies have also initiated innovation districts. This way, agencies can access pools of upstart talent in the applicable majors of study or, alternately, the fledgling talent of emerging companies that cater to relevant markets.

One of the prime examples in this regard is the efforts of the Sandia National Laboratory, which set up a research park in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences. Together, the two entities sought to create an institute that would bridge some of the gaps between the research and business arms of the technological sector.

The result, established in 1998, is the Sandia Science and Technology Park (SS&TP) — a sprawling establishment in the high desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that houses companies, research teams and engineers.

From its inception, the SS&TP has operated with the goal to advance the mission of the lab by allowing it to partner directly with the science and technology industries. SS&TP has garnered numerous awards since it opened, such as the Outstanding State and Local Economic Development honor from the Federal Laboratory Consortium. 

One of the more notable successes spawned from SS&TP is "Stingray," an explosion-detection technology that the research park licensed to New Jersey-based photovoltaic cell developers EMCORE. Advances such as these have been a testament to the benefits of innovation districts, where combined ideas and talents at the upstart and advanced levels have led to technologies that make the world a safer place.

Recently, some of SS&TP's facilities — including the Computer Science Research Institute and the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies — have moved to other locations, and this has broadened the range of people who have used the labs. The park has also moved in the direction of serving as an incubator space. While this wasn't part of SS&TP's original plans, due to UMD already having an incubator, the park has a lot more space than the university.

Various other national laboratories have also started innovation districts, including Research Park at NASA Ames and the Livermore Valley Open Campus, which were set up, respectively, by NASA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

One of the most unorthodox innovation districts is the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), which was set up by the University of Colorado at Boulder in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The vision behind JILA is to share expertise between students and industry in a common setting. The lab's workforce are not JILA employees, but a combination of workers from the university and NIST. The university owns JILA, and NIST rents out space.

spaces at Hershey Center available for tech and science companies

Businesses Benefit from Innovation Districts

Companies can find valuable new talent among the students who attend labs at innovation districts. Each year, gifted incoming students are devising innovative strategies with vast potential to reshape the course of the science, tech and business sectors. 

At the Hershey Center for Applied Research (HCAR), office spaces, lab facilities and support services are available to companies in the tech and life sciences industries. To learn more, contact HCAR today.