How to Build an Innovation Ecosystem

How to Build an Innovation Ecosystem

For spurring scientific progress, an interconnected community is key.

Overlapping circles are a common convention for illustrating how the players in an innovation network are connected. It's a simple way to show how investors, academic researchers, private sector scientists, policymakers, and other constituents all play a role in driving science and technology progress.

But there's a reason innovation strategists often use a more complex metaphor—an ecosystem—to describe such a community. As in nature's ecosystems, no single actor in an innovation system functions in isolation. If one member is weak, everyone suffers.

Karin Ezbiansky Pavese, vice president of Innovation & Sustainability at the Academy, says, "Many people think if you invest money in scientific research that economic growth is guaranteed, but investment in research is not enough to stay competitive. You must have the infrastructure in place to support these research investments and maximize their impact." Pavese and her staff advise governments and institutions that are interested in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Mayor of Mexico City, the Russian Federation, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the State University of New York (see "Building an Economic Engine?") are among the entities that have tapped her team for guidance.

It's easier for people to see how certain assets are important to generating innovation and, ultimately, economic growth, Pavese says. The importance of having strong R&D institutions, an industrial base, a deep talent pool, a strong physical and cyber infrastructure, and a business-friendly regulatory environment can seem obvious. But a system truly poised to innovate is one in which the barriers between organizations and individuals are broken down, where collaboration happens across disciplines and sectors, and where a diverse, democratized culture supports risk taking, tolerates failure, and celebrates success. Those concepts—network and culture—are less concrete, she says, so it's tougher for organizations and governments to understand the importance and necessity of supporting them. The regions and institutions that embrace their importance can gain the competitive advantage.

Innovation strategist Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, says forget about building a state-of-the-art science park and giving industry tax breaks to spur innovation. "Innovation is about people," he says. "Once you remove the obstacles to entrepreneurship, the most important ingredient is the network."

Wadhwa, one of dozens of outside experts the Academy taps for guidance on steering its innovation efforts, stresses the importance of fostering an environment that facilitates interaction among individuals. He points to Silicon Valley as the model: "It's one giant network where you can go to a coffee shop any day and see people talking to each other, and every evening you can go to events where you can learn from people in your field, where experienced people mingle with newbies," Wadhwa says.

Says Pavese, "A critical component to helping achieve our mission to advance science and technology is creating robust networks. The Academy's programs are instruments for building and expanding these networks at every stage of innovation." For instance, the Academy's jam-packed calendar of scientific events is well known for its role helping to cross-pollinate the various stakeholders in science and technology. But convening events is just one element of a package of interdependent innovation-inspiring initiatives. From a program designed to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers with graduate-student mentors to one that delivers investment capital directly to life sciences entrepreneurs, the Academy's activities aim to nurture the entire innovation cycle. Academy programs also coach grad students and postdocs in entrepreneurship, connect solvers with progress-crippling science and technology problems around the globe, and engage the general public in conversations about science.

Indeed, established Academy programs have a long history of creating networks and supporting innovation. But even newer initiatives, such as the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program and the Life Science Angel Network, as described in articles elsewhere in this issue (see "Pulling Our Weight in This Sputnik Moment" and "Going Beyond the Back-of-the-Napkin Business Plan"), are bearing fruit.

To be sure, the Academy takes seriously the connection between innovation ecosystems and scientific progress, to the point that the concepts of innovation ecosystems permeate just about everything the Academy does. On the following pages, you'll see exactly how the Academy creates networks and breaks down silos, as the directors of six Academy programs explain just how they walk the innovation talk.

K-12 Science Education

Meghan Groome, Director

The Academy's K-12 Science Education initiative is a conduit connecting New York City's stellar scientific community to science teachers and underserved school children by mentoring the city's youth and networking with their science teachers. This program is effectively bringing teachers and students into the city's innovation ecosystem, and nourishing the system from the bottom up.

One part of the K-12 program entails a public-private partnership among the Academy, the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, almost every NYC-based university, and almost 60 afterschool programs in all five boroughs. The idea is to connect underserved middle school students with mentors from the city's elite science graduate programs.

But first and foremost, the K-12 Science Education initiative is a professional learning network. Given the rate of scientific advancement, our program strives to expand the circle of professional contacts a teacher can call on to improve his or her knowledge or to update their curriculum content. If your students are studying cancer and you don't know a cancer researcher you can talk to, you're just going to be Googling for answers. In one of our afterschool programs, a group of students has been working on a biomedical engineering robotics challenge to address brain cancer. Their mentor reached out to his professional network and arranged a conference call. The kids sat around a table and talked to a cancer researcher about cells and how we treat cancer.

We deliberately structure professional development programs and field trips in a way that a diverse set of people can interact. For example, on a recent field trip to the Harlem DNA Lab, a teacher from the Bronx got to know a postdoctoral fellow from the nearby Albert Einstein College of Medicine. That teacher now has access to scientists at Einstein to whom she can turn. On another field trip, one teacher mentioned that she'd really like to demonstrate gel electrophoresis for her class, but doesn't have the right equipment. Others immediately jumped in with solutions.

We even use social networking to connect teachers to resources. A follower of our @nyask12 Twitter feed asked us whether you can see Earth spinning from outer space. I didn't know, so I tweeted an astronaut I know. He had a conversation via Twitter with this third grade class in Virginia about what you can see from space. Expanding an innovation ecosystem can be as simple as that.

Scientific Programs

Brooke Grindlinger, Director

Successful innovation equates to a successful marriage of invention and commercialization, and that requires a free flow of information and technology among people and organizations. In particular, it requires three entities with fiercely independent and traditionally non-overlapping cultures—government, universities, and the private sector—to engage in meaningful dialogues with each other.

The academy's portfolio of dozens of scientific meetings a year, including 15 conferences and 45 discussion groups along the spectrum of life sciences, is helping to dramatically optimize that three-way dialogue. Our in-house team of PhD and MD scientists works with key stakeholders from all of those sectors. As a neutral party, we're ideally suited to facilitate the dialogue among them. It's undeniable that our meetings help to break down the disciplinary and sector-specific silos and get these people talking to each other in a structured and productive manner.

One specific example is the way our Translational Medicine Initiative, through a multiyear partnership with the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, has in just one year brought together more than 1,000 basic researchers, physicians, public health experts, and policy makers to examine recent breakthroughs in the life sciences and to explore ways to better integrate basic science and innovative teaching techniques into a medical curriculum that has been static for 40 years.

We're also trying to understand the social dimensions of innovation. What policy changes might be needed at federal and institutional levels to implement real working relationships among these three sectors? Our meetings often feature speakers from agencies such as the NIH, FDA, and the Federal Trade Commission, providing a rare opportunity for R&D professionals to engage with regulators and grantors.

Beyond networking, the Academy also supports a culture of innovation by recognizing and celebrating research and creativity. The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists celebrate innovative advancements from early career scientists. And our Aspen Brain Forum Prize recognizes innovators in the field of neurotechnology.

Finally, by virtue of the fact that so much of the content from our meetings is disseminated electronically, through eBriefings, podcasts, video interviews, and the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, we're contributing to the global scientific knowledge base, extending the innovation ecosystem far beyond the boundaries of our live events.

Science Alliance

Monica Kerr, Director

Science Alliance is focused on the human capital piece of innovation, supporting aspiring entrepreneurs and scientists who want to broaden the impact of their research. Creating a culture where scientists are encouraged to think about the practical application of their work and are equipped with the necessary resources to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors is critical to building an innovation ecosystem.

Two things that scientific graduate education lacks in this regard are training in how to move an idea from the lab to the marketplace and mechanisms to interact with the entrepreneurship community. We host two courses to fill those gaps—From Idea to IPO and From Scientist to Entrepreneur—and universities have welcomed our help. Through these courses we provide key information not typically available to scientists, such as: What kinds of inventions are patentable? What really has potential for an entrepreneurial endeavor? How can the university tech transfer office help you? How do you write a business plan? How can you obtain funding? We also connect them to the entrepreneurial community by bringing in speakers involved in tech transfer, patent law, venture capital, and company formation. Beyond listening to lectures the attendees are building networks.

And it's paying off. Two Science Alliance members were selected this year for the prestigious InSITE fellowship, a two-year entrepreneurial mentorship program designed to support New York entrepreneurs in the development of their businesses and pursuit of venture capital and angel investments. Historically only top business and law students were accepted for fellowships, but through my conversations with the chair, they opened the program up to PhD students and postdocs. Two of the five nontraditional candidates this year came from Science Alliance.

It's all part of building an environment where everybody is supporting innovation and startups. Ideally, some day the students from our Science Alliance courses will feed into the Academy's Life Sciences Angel Network and either find jobs with startups or have an opportunity to pitch their own business ideas.

Life Sciences Angel Network

Milena Adamian, Director

Put three scientists in a room and they can talk from dawn to dusk, but innovation will not come from their ideas without funding and someone who can execute on it. We launched the Life Sciences Angel Network four months ago with a very pragmatic goal: fuel innovation by putting entrepreneurs together with money.

We focus on a variety of areas—medical devices, healthcare IT, diagnostics, biotech, and pharmaceuticals. We're now looking at companies that are improving on the current methods of treatment. These are products that are needed and that require a relatively short time to get to market. For instance, healthcare IT is a hot area that includes anything from improving how lab specimens are shipped to organizing virtual advisory boards. These businesses don't have to deal with FDA regulations or time constraints.

Any entrepreneur can apply for consideration through our website, and we review 20 or more proposals for every one company we invite to present. Three medical device companies presented at the first Life Sciences Angel Network pitch meeting, and we already have one healthcare IT company and two device companies lined up to present to investors at our next meeting.

We've had nearly 50 submissions in four months from entrepreneurs in the New York area. That seems like a lot until you compare it to California--the difference highlights an important element of an innovation ecosystem: entrepreneurship must be encouraged in academia. The West coast is known for a climate where professors and even students are involved in startups. In New York academia, that culture is still emerging. Even investment term sheets are structured differently on the West coast verses the East coast. In California investors take the approach that an investment will succeed. In New York, terms are more often structured to protect the investor from failure.

We don't exclude based on geography, but we do prefer to help companies in New York. We're using a model that's been used in other cities to move technology forward and generate return for investors. This is a way of strengthening another part of New York's innovation ecosystem.

Innovation & Sustainability

Karin Pavese, Vice President

When called on for guidance in fostering an innovation ecosystem, the Academy's Innovation & Sustainability group begins by looking at the asset base of science and technology to understand where a region or institution's strengths are. In order to maximize the return on investments that have been made, we recommend building an innovation system around those assets.

For example, if we look at a particular region and find that energy storage technology is a strength we would ask, "Does the available human capital support this?" If not, we would make a series of recommendations such as to infuse the grad programs with top notch experience, to hire professors, or to build a center.

Then we look at the strengths in financial capital and ask whether venture capitalists are familiar with this area. We would recommend establishing a program like the Academy's Life Sciences Angel Network to connect investors with entrepreneurs. We also conduct interviews with the leaders from every sector. If those reveal that the asset is disconnected from private industry, this is where the Academy's scientific programming expertise comes into play, hosting events to connect industry and academia, or creating an international conference to bring visibility to that area.

In New York State, our interviews with 50 academic and industry leaders made it clear to us that people were not talking to each other. The head of research at Xerox said he imagined there was pre-competitive research his team could be collaborating on with GE and academic institutions in Albany, but he didn't know what they were working on. We heard that same story again and again. We recommended two sets of ongoing top-down workshops at the state level within each state region where academic research provosts and industry leaders could talk about their research needs and try to coordinate a more cohesive research agenda.

New York has now formed industry–academia consortiums in smart grid and battery technology to do exactly that. That's one step in building an innovation ecosystem.

Scientists Without Borders

Shaifali Puri, Executive Director

Scientists Without Borders enables a worldwide user community to collaborate to generate solutions to global development challenges requiring scientific or technological expertise or resources. Our web-based platform enables great ideas originated anywhere to be applied anywhere. We think this open and distributed model can accelerate breakthroughs while driving down the costs of innovation.

Nature provides abundant evidence that innovation thrives where diverse networks coexist—places like coral reefs and rainforests. I like to think of Scientists Without Borders as developing a coral reef for global development innovation. Our users consist of students, academics, industry scientists, NGO workers, policy-makers, and other interested parties from all over the world, who can commingle their unique insights and resources and redeploy them in unanticipated ways.

People have always been inventive in low-resource environments—there's truth to the phrase, "necessity is the mother of invention"—and Scientists Without Borders is also committed to surfacing and scaling locally developed inventions. Users of our platform can broadcast specific challenges they face to our community and strategic partner networks. Other users can, in turn, post ideas or solutions, and collaborate to refine them. All of this is open and transparent so that a solution to one challenge may also generate a solution to an entirely unrelated one.

Users in Cameroon, Haiti, India, Kenya, Malaysia, and other countries have posted challenges on the platform. A user from Uganda recently posted a clean water challenge, and within a month 11 solutions, including several detailed scientific treatments, had been posted by users all over the world.

Similarly, we leverage our network to develop open innovation models, including challenges with prizes and incentives, to address large-scale challenges requiring multi-stakeholder participation.

Innovation is not merely idea generation, of course. We're also focused on execution. We are working to help users like the one from Uganda assess which ideas have promise, and to connect them with others who can help them advance the idea to the next steps. We're committed to turning the output of our virtual coral reef into real world, high-impact interventions.