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New research provides empirical support for relationship building to encourage innovation economies

July 23, 2020
By: Colin Edwards

As discussion of innovation ecosystems remains near the front of science, technology, and innovation policy discussions — and resources are spent providing environments for creative exchange between researchers, industry, government, and entrepreneurs — substantive and empirical research is still lagging. However, a recent study sheds new light on the mechanisms and types of interactions that may contribute to the desired outcomes of promoting innovation ecosystems. Specifically, the study evaluates the effectiveness of combining two long-running, potentially complementary programs in encouraging increased engagement among ecosystem groups and individuals.

Based on a short-lived program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) — which provided supplemental funding to firms with active SBIR Phase II or Phase IIB awards for membership in Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) — the study surveyed participating firms to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers explored how participating firms increased and leveraged their social capital through formal and informal interactions with IUCRC members for increases in their R&D and commercialization outcomes.

An IUCRC is an NSF-funded, university-based research cooperative that represents the shared interests of academia, industry, and the federal government. These centers focus on conducting pre-competitive, fundamental research with the potential to impact industry. IUCRC’s focus is on pre-competitive research at the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) of 1 through 3, while the SBIR program focuses on TRL 4 and up.

The theory of the IUCRC membership supplement for SBIR firms was that simultaneously increasing exposure to researchers working on lower TRL projects and industry professionals would increase R&D and commercialization success at the participating SBIR companies. Organizations with full IUCRC memberships — as the SBIR firms were as a result of this program — also gain a seat on the IUCRC’s Industry Advisory Board (IAB) and inclusion in other IUCRC events, further increasing the opportunities to build social capital.

The researchers’ model found that between attending meetings, interacting with students and faculty, and serving on the IAB, inclusion in the IAB yielded the greatest positive impact on participating firms’ social capital. The researchers also found that increased social capital had a greater positive impact on SBIR firms’ perceived commercialization outcomes than their R&D outcomes. Although the model’s findings on whether R&D outcomes or commercialization outcomes had the greatest impact on SBIR firms’ total perceived return on investment (ROI) are statistically muddier, there nonetheless remains the statistically significant finding that a majority of firms perceived a positive ROI from participating in the program.

The research highlights the crux of the program’s broadly perceived success: the convening power of the dual-instrument approach. The IUCRC membership supplement allowed SBIR firms to get into alignment with an IUCRC’s interests, and it also allowed firms the opportunity to get in the room with decision-makers, researchers, and executives, providing an environment where SBIR firms could quickly build social capital by networking and interacting under formalized (e.g. IAB chair) and informal roles.

Although the study’s authors admit it is not an experimental or even a quasi-experimental evaluation — and therefore lacking a certain measure of reliability and validity — it nonetheless begins to uncover how the various interactions in a complex local innovation ecosystem can impact the economic outcomes for various players.

r&d, commercialization, sbir