Research parks are, in my view, the unsung heroes of the tech world. Most of the time, we hear about new tech from folks like Google and Apple. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to bring those innovations to life. And, increasingly, that activity is expanding to broader communities, like innovation districts and corridors. New relationships form across sectors, new discoveries are made – a lot can happen when entrepreneurial types start putting their heads together.
Of course, I’m biased. I’ve been in R&T parks almost as long as they’ve been a thing. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the world’s most gifted researchers, first as part of Saskatchewan’s Innovation Place, and now as a consultant for organizations in the US and Canada. I’ve had a front row seat for innovations from the first campus wide internet to rocket payloads in outer space.
So why, you may ask, have R&T parks and innovation hubs not reached the rock-star status they deserve? How can these innovation networks get the public, the business community, and government to recognize their value?
Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Just what is the value of research parks?
R&T parks bring researchers together with industry to find solutions to complex problems. And – just as importantly – they convert those solutions into commercial activities that drive economic growth.
Most innovation parks and districts might not be much to look at from the outside. But they’re actually major hubs for dealing with the world’s greatest challenges, from water protection to food development and distribution to pollution control.
Much of this work is incredibly complex. The discoveries being made feed into larger systems and move solutions forward. As crucial as the work is, the incremental, and sometimes transformational, nature of research can make it hard to describe in a social media post or news sound bite.
So, how do we build awareness and support for R&T parks and innovation hubs? I know what you’re thinking: “We need more champions in government!” And you’re right – we do. But even then, we have the same problem: how to equip champions with a key message that they can share in those elevator pitch moments. For that, R&T parks need to take a different approach to identifying and communicating their impact.
What makes research parks valuable is their ability to leverage the talent and resources that are unique to their communities. Figure out what your park and your region do best. Now put those into terms that your next-door neighbour would be interested in. Get some numbers that put it into perspective. And put those accomplishments front and centre in your communications. Arizona Tech Parks does a great job of this, including providing an “Economic Impact” link on the home page of its website that quantifies the park’s considerable impact in dollar figures.
This advice probably sounds absurdly simple. But after a while, R&T parks can become a bit oblivious to their own best qualities. Sure, you know how great you are. But other folks probably don’t. Every day you have to start that conversation anew, reminding people again why you’re the best thing since sliced bread. This is no time to be a shrinking violet, and – sad news for you introverts out there – self-promotion is an ongoing task.
Your tenants are a wealth of knowledge – not only about their own fields of innovation, but also about the wider ecosystem. They are also great ambassadors for the park. Talk to them as often as you can. Those day-to-day conversations can lead to more information sharing along with breakthrough ideas and connections.
Long-time park guru Laura O’Blenis has talked about the importance of engagement in park leadership, and I heartily agree. While at Innovation Place, the managers and I were like marriage counsellors, asking questions, listening, empathizing, reflecting, problem-solving. Always trying to make sure the Park – Tenant relationship was going in the right direction. Always trying to help tenants succeed.
The word “commercialization” gets thrown around quite a bit these days. But it’s crucial for R&T parks to do more than talk about commercialization. They need to be moving innovations to market. And – just as importantly – they need to be seen moving innovations to market.
Countless opinion editorials have been written about Canada’s “innovation problem,” but innovation isn’t the problem. Lack of commercialization of those innovations is. R&T parks and innovation hubs have resources, people, and space to drive commercialization. But without a specific plan and clear targets, it’s hard to move from commercialization as a concept to commercialization as a reality.
One key part of this process is a partnership approach. We all have partners or potential partners to help us, and help our tenants grow – engage with those (especially the potential) partners and determine what they bring to the discussions to help both of you to be better.
Promoting impact is also about sharing the glory with the people and institutions who support the park and invest in its success. Being able to show investors how their funds have contributed to economic and social impact is a powerful way to retain their interest and loyalty.
There are lots of folks out there who can help with assessing impact, but the key place to start is internally. As someone once said, “Measure what you want to achieve. You’ll achieve what you measure.” The sooner you implement a data collection and analysis strategy, the sooner you will be able to generate consistent data. I’ll tell you a secret: It’s not tough to stand out in this respect. R&T parks are much better at supporting innovation than at tracking it. Parks that invest even a little bit of time in assessment stand to differentiate themselves from the pack. And these days, thinking about impact on the community – social impact – is a key differentiator.
As folks who know me even a little will tell you, I’m a bit of a golf fanatic. And it turns out that golf has a lot in common with leading a research park. Like golf players, research park leaders are trying to achieve their goals as efficiently as possible – planning an approach, hitting the right shots, and having fun along the way. Every new shot is an opportunity to improve, to achieve, to compete.
Golf, like R&T park leadership, is an intellectual pursuit that requires a thoughtful approach – and a little luck never hurts. In both settings, we have a specific environment and tools, to which we apply our unique creativity and skill. Just like golf, R&T parks, innovation districts, and other entrepreneurial ecosystems hold the promise of benefiting the broader community. The more skill and dedication we can bring to park leadership, the more opportunities we have to promote economic growth and solve the world’s toughest problems.
Each day, R&T parks, like golf courses, give us a new chance to take our best shot. So, thank you, R&T parks – to which R&T parks of course reply, “You’re welcome.”
Want to find out more about the latest trends in research parks and innovation clusters? Register today for the Association of University Research Parks International Conference September 19-22, 2022: https://international.aurp.net/