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Science and Public Policy, volume 29, number 2, April 2002, pages 115–128, Beech Tree Publishing, 10 Watford

Close, Guildford, Surrey GU1 2EP, England

Business incubators

Incubation of incubators: innovation as a triple

helix of university–industry–government

Henry Etzkowitz

The shift of university–industry linkages from a

linear to an interactive innovation model is visi-
ble especially in the history of the university
business incubator. Transcending the production
sisting the growth of spin-off firms through a
dedicated facility providing subsidized
space, consultation and other help to encourage
and dissemination of research, incubated know- entrepreneurship is a worldwide phenomenon.
Originating in the USA at Rensselaer Polytechnic
ledge increasingly lies behind new products and
Institute (RPI) as an explicit organizational format
new firms. Incubators have developed technology two decades ago, the concept has since spread to
and business ideas into an array of firms and to Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa
form research centers by fusing heterogeneous (Rice and Matthews, 1995; see also Kalis, 2001).
R&D entities from university, government and Nevertheless, incubation has developed according to
industry. Further transformation of university– distinctive trajectories. There has been a focus on
industry linkages are in the parallel evolution of reverse engineering and adapting imported technol-
incubator from an isolated to a networked entity. ogy in Eastern Europe, spin-offs from faculty
As these developments are supported by changes research in the USA and an emphasis on student-
in the regulatory environment and by govern- organized firms in Sweden.
ment funding programs, this pairing becomes Incubator development varies according to aca-
university–industry–government interactions. demic and regional conditions. Although the overall
trend is positive, incubators have been established at
different rates in different countries, growing espe-
cially rapidly in China and Brazil. For example, in
the early 1990s, Rio de Janeiro and New York City
each had two university-based incubator facilities,
Henry Etzkowitz is at the Science Policy Institute, State Univer- currently Rio has ten and New York three, although
sity of New York at Purchase, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Pu r- additional facilities are projected. One hypothesis to
chase, NY 10577-1400; E-mail: Henryetzkowitz@earthlink.net.
An earlier version of this paper was presented to the plenary explain this difference is that New York’s universi-
session of the World Conference on Business Incubation, ties are highly competitive with one another in con-
Wednesday, 24 October 2001 in Rio de Janeiro. The author trast to Rio de Janeiro where the leading universities
wishes to express appreciation to the Center for Business and collaborate in assisting newer, smaller universities to
Policy Studies (SNS) Stockholm, the National Research develop their incubator facilities.
Council (CNPq) Brazil and the Ministry of Science and Tech-
nology, Honduras for support of SPI’s Incubation, Innovation The explanation of alternative outcomes can be
and Entrepreneurship project. The author is grateful to Eugene sought in the analysis of: (1) the embedding of an
Schuler Jr. and to the anonymous reviewer. incubator in the research or teaching mission of the

Science and Public Policy April 2002 0302-3427/02/020115-14 US$08.00  Beech Tree Publishing 2002 115
Incubation of incubators

Henry Etzkowitz is Director of the Science Policy Institute of

case, the most productive regime of university–
the State University of New York and Associate Professor of industry relations will comprise both elements.
Sociology at Purchase College. Recent books are MIT and Frederick Terman, the proponent of a joint aca-
the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science (Routledge, 2002); Pub- demic and regional development strategy at Stanford
lic Venture Capital: Sources of Government Funding for
Technology Entrepreneurs (with M Gulbrandsen and J Levitt) from the 1930s to the 1960s, also played a key role
(Aspen/Kluwer, 2001, 2nd edition) and Athena Unbound: The in introducing an entrepreneurial academic model to
Advancement of Women in Science and Technology (with C developing countries. As a consultant, from the
Kemelgor and B Uzzi) (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
He is co-founder (with L Leydesdorff) of the ‘triple helix’ uni- 1950s to the 1970s, he encouraged the foundation of
versity–industry–government conferences (Amsterdam, the Indian Institute of Technology and the Korean
1996; New York, 1998; Rio de Janeiro, 2000; Copenhagen, Institute for Advanced Studies (KAIST), resulting in
2002) [www.triplehelix.dk]. the creation of flourishing software and hardware
industries in those countries (Leslie and Kargon,
1996; see also Krishna, 2001).
Technology transfer thus becomes a two-way
university, or both; (2) whether an incubator is flow South/North, from developing to developed
solely dependent upon its own university or is part countries, as well as North/South, which was for-
of a network across academia, industry and govern- merly the sole format of the colonial era. High-tech
ment, at various levels; and (3) the relative presence regions in advanced industrial countries may also
or absence of incubation support services, including decline when an early lead is not built upon. Another
public and private start-up financing, in the local Terman report, commissioned by the State of New
innovation environment. York in the late 1960s, had mixed results. The or i-
Is it in the nature of knowledge that this phe- gins of the state-sponsored Centers for Advanced
nomenon of knowledge-based economic develop- Technology, initially at RPI and then at other
ment must happen? Or is it in the nature of business? schools can be traced to the report.
Is it the result of rational economic choices? Or is it Nevertheless, the advice to focus New York
the culture of the academy? In this article, I shall City’s diverse centers of technological education
argue that incubation is part of the bi-evolution of was not heeded, the centrifugal forces of competi-
the university, an enlargement in mission and focus. tion among universities was simply too strong. New
It exemplifie s the expansion of academic objectives York City, which had been one of three centers of
to incorporate a ‘third mission’ of economic and so- high technology, along with Berlin and Paris, lost
cial development. It also involves a shift in focus, this distinction. The growth of multi-media and
from individuals to organizations, in the teaching software firms in the 1990s largely served existing
function of the university. Finally, the development industries; Silicon Alley lacked sufficient ability to
of incubation represents a transformation from a lin- generate new products and growth firms, which
ear, and reverse-linear, to an interactive model of some attribute to the deficit in university–industry
innovation. links.
The paucity of such ties is partly a result of the
lack of a critical mass of technical higher education
Impetuses and barriers to incubation sometimes expressed in the statement, “New York
has no MIT.”1 In response to this gap, various pro-
Incubation is an exemplar of the triple helix model posals have been made over the past 30 years to
of university–industry–government relations. From merge or create a ‘virtual MIT’ from the various
divergent starting points in different parts of the technical academic institutions in New York City
world, there is a movement toward university– (Etzkowitz, 2001). The failure of these proposals is
industry–government networks aimed at the incuba- indicative of the centrifugal forces in the New York
tion of new enterprises. The model, which has at its regional innovation environment that make collabo-
core a university as a source of new technologies rative initiatives difficult.
and firms, had its origins at MIT (Massachusetts By contrast in Austin, Texas a single leading
Institute of Technology) and Stanford in the early university has been able to gain state-government
20th century (Etzkowitz, 2002). The former exem- and industry support to foster knowledge-based eco-
plifies incubation as a strategy to revive a declining nomic development. This has made initiatives, such
industrial region; the latter an instance of developing as the formation of an Austin Software Council,
a ‘green field’ site, a region largely lacking in which is currently expanding its purview to become
industry. a High Tech Council for the region, easier to ac-
Ideally, the incubator is part of a broader strategy complish.
of academic and regional co-development and a web
of informal and formal university–industry ties.
Such ties can be initiated through creation of a for- The entrepreneurial university
mal structure, such as an incubator or a liaison of-
fice, or may arise from continuing relationships Incubation is part of a global model for the man-
between professors and former students. In either agement of knowledge and technology in regional

116 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

development, with the university as an entrepreneur. captured by the ‘endless frontier’ model of a linear
The university has potentially flexible resources, flow from basic to applied research to production.
giving it the ability to take on new missions, espe- Whether countries started from the model of the
cially in times of crisis. For example, US universi- state incorporating industry and academia or a con-
ties took the initiative during the Second World War figuration in which they coexisted separately, the
to take on military R&D responsibilities, even different helices have recently been moving in a
though the major R&D centers at the time were lo- common direction, overlapping each other, to stimu-
cated in industry. In Brazil, when resources were no late both competition and collaboration.
longer available for large-scale technology proje cts
such as science parks, universities took up the slack
during the 1980s by founding incubators. Triple helix model
The university is a natural incubator that some-
times plays an informal entrepreneurial role in the Society is more complex than biology. A ‘double
incubation of companies. When communications helix’ was sufficient to model DNA. A ‘triple helix’
systems broke down in Zambia during the past dec- is required to model university–industry–
ade, the Computer Center at the University of Zam- government interactions. The triple helix comprises
bia extended the university’s modest internal universities and other knowledge-producing institu-
computer network across the country, leading to the tions; industry, including high-tech start-ups and
foundation of ZAMNET, an independent internet multinational corporations; and government at vari-
service provider (ISP) (Konde, 2001). ous levels. While industry and government have
Firm-formation from academic institutions has traditionally been conceptualized as primary institu-
been systematized from a series of individual entre- tional spheres, what is new in the triple helix model
preneurial initiatives into an organizationally refined is that the university is posited to be a leading sphere
method of economic and social development. This along with industry and government.
metamorphosis began with the invention of the ven- The partial overlap among university, industry
ture capital firm in the early post war, based upon a and government differs from situations in which the
pre-war university–industry–government collabora- state encompasses industry and the university, for
tion in New England, to fill gaps in the region’s example, the former Soviet Union, and some Euro-
innovation environment. pean and Latin American countries, in a previous era
During the post-war period there were more ex- when state -owned industries were predominant. The
amples of university-based start-ups, especially near triple helix model is also different from separate in-
MIT and Stanford. Other technical universities, such stitutional spheres, for example, how the USA is
as RPI in Troy, New York, combining a strategy of supposed to work, at least in theory, as a laissez-
academic and regional development, wished to be- faire society. From either of these starting points,
come involved and imported the incubator concept institutional spheres are ‘taking the role of the
from industry for this purpose. Institutions in each other,’ spinning-off hybrid organizations and actions
sector (academy, government and industry) play such as the incubator movement, embodying ele-
hybridized roles that seem to move them away from ments of the triple helix (see Figure 1).
classical understandings of each, for instance,
entrepreneurial academics, academic industrialists,
business strategy in government, and so on. The in- Method and propositions
cubators are institutions that encourage and provide
a home for these hybridized roles. This article draws its data from a convenience sam-
Transcending a simple production function for ple of more than 100 in-depth interviews and focus
translating R&D inputs into outputs (Stiglitz, 1994, groups conducted with Incubator directors, start-up
page 148), the powers of knowledge, located in uni- firm founders and members, professors, students,
versities and research institutes, change the agenda
for economic development policy especially at the
regional level. Conversely, the exercise of power,
through governmental bodies at the multinational,
national and regional levels and also through organi- While industry and government have
zations that bring together academic, industrial and traditionally been conceptualized as
government actors, especially at the regional level,
encourages knowledge producers to think in terms of
primary institutional spheres, what is
use often indirectly through funding incentives and new in the triple helix model is that the
new intellectual property regimes, and redirects the university is posited to be a leading
production of knowledge to new ends even as such
groups expand support for knowledge production. sphere along with industry and
The interactive two-way flow between industry, government
government and academia in computer science, ma-
terials science and molecular biology is not well

Science and Public Policy April 2002 117

Incubation of incubators

Triple helix model Laissez-faire model Etatistic model

Tri-lateral networks and

hybrid organizations

State State

Industry Academia
Academia Industry
State Industry

Figure 1. From etatistic to triple helix model

industrialists and policy makers. The interviews • Incubators are organizations that internalize the
were conducted by the author during the past decade triadic relationship, and encourage and provide a
in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, home for these hybridized roles.
Honduras, Japan, Singapore, Sweden, Denmark, • Networking at various levels, among incubator
Norway, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the firms, incubators and institutional spheres have
United Kingdom, Italy and France. However, as the potential to enhance the rate of innovation and
country visits progressed, the sample stratified itself inventive activity, both technological and organ-
according to the following dimensions: universities izational.
focused on research versus teaching; etatistic versus • High-tech innovation is universalized as develop-
laissez-faire innovation environments; developing ing countries with the ability to develop human
versus advanced industrial countries. Archival re- capital in niche areas are able to translate these
search at MIT, Stanford and RPI provided additional competencies into internationally competitive
data. technologies and firms.
Our sample allows us to treat such issues as: dif- • University entrepreneurship programs and incuba-
ferences in the nature, role and dynamics of incuba- tor facilities have the potential to turn technology
tion efforts in developing countries, such as Brazil transfer from a linear North/South flow into an
and Mexico and those in developed countries, such interactive process.
as Sweden and the USA; similarities and differences • Incubation exemplifies the emergence of a triple
among universities that are refracted into different helix science, technology and innovation policy.
modes of incubation. In some respects the processes
of knowledge-based economic development any-
where in the world also reflect basic patterns, arising Origins of incubation
in part from the transfer of a common organizational
innovation, the incubator. Incubators arose from a confluence of public and
The incubator format is also reinterpreted and private interests, with a common goal of systematiz-
re-invented to respond to local conditions, opportu- ing the transition from invention to commercializa-
nities and problems. The flexibility of the incubator tion of new technology. The sources include
model has allowed its adaptation to the problems of inventors seeking to develop their ideas, corpora-
low-tech as well as high-tech firms, the formation of tions seeking to spin-off technologies not directly
cooperatives as well as corporations, linear exten- related to their core competencies and universities
sion of academic research and reverse linear impor- seeking to contribute to the development of their
tation of industrial problems and business concepts regions. The idea came about to organize the
into academia.
The principles of incubation in a triple helix of
university–industry relations can be expressed in the
following propositions:
The contemporary university business
• The development of science and technology is incubator is part of a complex of
increasingly embedded in the triadic relationship
of university, industry and government.
organizational innovations targeted
• Institutions in each sector (academy, government at the application of science to
and industry) play hybridized roles that move invention and of finance to the
them away from classical understandings of the
sector, for instance, entrepreneurial academics, commercialization of research
academic industrialists, and business strategy in

118 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

development of the firms from the university more region’s strengths and weaknesses by the New
systematically through development of the univer- England Council, an organization that drew together
sity incubator, based upon industry precursors. the regions’ university–industry–government leader-
As a support structure to nurture the growth of ship during the 1920s and 1930s to explore initia-
technology firms, the contemporary university bus i- tives for economic and social development. After
ness incubator is part of a complex of organizational considering and discarding existing regional devel-
innovations targeted at the application of science to opment models such as reducing taxes and attracting
invention and of finance to the commercialization of branch plants of national corporations, the Council
research. These include the invention of the indus- accepted MIT President Karl Compton’s proposal to
trial research laboratory in the late 19th century, the build upon the regions’ research strengths in its col-
technology transfer unit in the early 20th century, leges and universities by creating a new type of
the venture capital firm in the early post-war. The organization to assist firm-formation.
origins of the incubator as an organizational entity The original model of the venture capital firm,
can be traced to Thomas Alva Edison’s efforts to American Research and Development (ARD)
systematize the invention and commercialization of founded in 1946, created a support structure for the
technology. early stages of firm development. ARD created a
systematic search mechanism to identify technology
The proto -incubator: Edison’s ‘invention factory’ with commercial potential. The early venture capital
firm assisted potential firm founders by encouraging
Thomas Alva Edison’s ‘invention factory,’ founded them to become entrepreneurs and by providing fi-
in the late 19th century, widely recognized as the nancial capital and business advice. In contrast to the
precursor of the industrial research laboratory, may Invention Factory model based on the technical and
also be seen as the prototype of the incubator facil- business vision of a single individual, the venture
ity. Edison created his invention factory long before firm was designed to attract and winnow the tech-
the term ‘incubator’ was applied to an organization nology ideas of a large number of persons.
designed to nurture the growth of high-technology ARD operated as a virtual incubator, attracting,
firms, but his organization may appropriately be selecting and supporting ideas for new technology
viewed in terms of the incubation process. businesses. ARD sometimes used available space at
More than a support structure supplying research MIT to locate firms. As the venture industry grew,
and technology to meet the needs of an existing its focus shifted from the provision of seed capital to
firm, Edison’s operation regularly and successfully financing the later stages of firm-formation.
created new businesses and industries such as film
and sound recording but also failed in developing The intrapreneurial incubator
new techniques and firms to process iron ore. Edi
son brought together technologists, scientists and The third phase in the development of the incubator
support staff, into a single organization, to system- concept is an extension of the corporate R&D or
atically design and patent a series of core technolo- development lab. Some projects that were consid-
gies and develop spin-off firms to bring them to ered ‘far out’ or that had potential for the develop-
market. ment of new business or that were not directly
The proto-incubator revolved around the techno- related to the firm’s existing activities were removed
logical vision of a single person who envisioned from the lab. They were relocated to a separate space
technological and business opportunities and then or unit where their champions could be given greater
designed technical and organizational solutions to leeway outside the regular organizational chain of
fill them, such as the electric light system (Israel, command. These undercover corporate R&D sites
1998). The General Electric Corporation (GE), in were sometimes called ‘skunkworks.’
various national formats, was founded to supply the Originally the name for a home for an advanced
needs of this new technological complex and expand aerospace project, companies such as Control Data
upon it through its research efforts. It is perhaps not and General Electric took the skunkworks concept a
an accident that GE became one of the originators of step further and established internal incubator facili-
corporate incubation in recent decades. In the late ties to encourage development of new technologies
19th and early 20th century, it was largely the efforts not necessarily related to the core business of the
of Edison and his colleagues that made the New firm. Corporate employees could retain their jobs
York metropolitan region one of the three leading while forming a new firm, returning to their previous
high-tech centers of the world at that time. job without great risk, if necessary. However, when
the corporation came under economic pressure, ac-
The early venture capital firm tivities that did not contribute directly to the bottom
line were often closed down.
The second stage in the development of the incuba- Corporate incubation has been an episodic process
tor concept was the invention of the venture capital that nevertheless continually reappears, especially
firm in New England during the 1930s and 1940s. when a firm finds that it needs to be more flexible or
The concept arose from an analyses made of the requires additional income from its R&D. Some

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Incubation of incubators

large firms, for example Xerox, have recently made Universities that wanted to initiate an entrepre-
incubation into a recognized profit center. neurial tradition imported the incubator concept
from industry to stimulate firm-formation. The pro-
The private incubator totypical instance is the relationship of General Ele c-
tric Laboratory in Schenectady to RPI in nearby
In recent years, incubators have been established as Troy, New York. Until the recent departure of the
independent firms or as spin-offs of venture capital firm from the region, a symbiotic relationship
firms. The private incubator, such as Idealab or existed between GE and the university, characterized
Launchpad 39, is typically initiated by an entrepre- by a steady flow of lab personnel into senior
neur, or group of entrepreneurs, and is tightly focused positions, including the presidency of RPI.
on a particular technology theme, such as the Inter- Corporate R&D personnel, such as Pier Abetti,
net, with the goal of developing a stable of closely who transferred to RPI to become faculty members
related firms (Hansen et al, 2000). The private incu- brought with them the incubator model of assisted
bator supplies capital as well as business and support firm-formation. Former GE incubator officials who
services to entrepreneurs to grow their firms; it works became university technology transfer officers, for
off a common business model of firm-formation to example, Pat Hession, at SUNY Stony Brook, were
guide its entrepreneurs. The private incubator may carriers of the incubator model to other universities.
even provide the business concept and, in effect, ‘hire The technology transfer office spread from academia
an entrepreneur’ to make it into a firm. to government and firm laboratories; organized in-
The private incubator represents a partial return cubation moved in the opposite direction.
both to Edison’s original model and the early ven-
ture capital firm. Since the incubator supplies
capital, it takes equity on this basis as well as for Contemporary incubator model
assistance with firm development. The private incu-
bator brings the incubator model full circle to Edi- The contemporary university incubator revives the
son’s concept of spinning-off firms from a related classic venture capital model, combining financing
set of technologies, and to the early venture firm and mentoring of newly founded high-technology
model of providing extensive business and financial firms, originated by ARD in the early post-war. The
assistance. Private incubators have been called ‘net- incubator adds value to the original venture capital
worked incubators’ since they tend to emphasize model by locating various firm-formation activities,
synergies among resident firms and even form firms often along related technology themes, in a common
for this purpose. physical space where cross-fertilization among com-
panies can more easily take place. By reconnecting
The university business incubator the incubator model to a venture capital process,
new enterprises can systematically be created from
Firm-formation from academic research began to be various sources including, but not limited to,
systematized through the invention of the venture academic, industrial and government research
capital firm, which served as a proto-incubator dur- laboratories.
ing the early post war. Nevertheless, academic incu- The premise of the incubator is that firm-
bation has a long pre-history. Firm-formation from formation can be improved by organizing it as an
academic research occurred in the 17th century from educational process, with formal and informal
pharmaceutical research at German universities and aspects. By bringing together various elements to
in the late 19th century from chemical research, also improve firm-formation in a common setting, the
in Germany. In the USA, firm-formation occurred in goal is to increase the chances for success of new
the late 19th century around Harvard and MIT in enterprises. During the past three decades, the incu-
scientific instrumentation. By the 1920s and 1930s, bator concept of assisted firm development has been
radio and electronics firms were formed at MIT and applied in various ways to: resolve problems of
Stanford, which eventually became the basis for re- firm-formation from early-stage technology; raise
gional clusters. the technological level of existing firms; and create
Karl Compton and Frederick Terman pointed to jobs in distressed regions.
the potential of this phenomenon as a regional de- Firms may also be incubated from new business
velopment model. Compton, as President of MIT models created by entrepreneurs and academics and
during the 1930s and 1940s, and Terman as Provost from incremental innovations develo ped within the
of Stanford, during the 1950s and 1960s, stimulated non-research parts of existing firms. As a support
firm-formation from academia. By encouraging an structure for entrepreneurship, incubation is the logi-
entrepreneurial ethos and legitimizing the practice of cal next step after entrepreneurial education, even
firm-formation, the entire university, in effect, be- though historically it has typically come first, with
came a quasi-incubator. As a Stanford faculty mem- an educational process added on later.
ber put it, “It was not a sin to form a firm” at a time There are approximately 3,000 incubator facilities
when it was looked askance at or virtually prohibited worldwide of varying scale and scope (International
at other universities. Association of Science Parks, 2002. 3 One of the

120 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

fastest growing incubator movements is in China, director should be familiar with the business, fi-
where large-scale state -supported incubators typi- nancial, labor and technical communities in a
cally grow several dozen high-tech firms simultane- region and be able to link firm founders with ex-
ously (Lalkaka, 2000). The incubator movement ternal resources.
with perhaps the broadest scope is in Brazil, where 3b. It is not unusual, however, for incubator direc-
several types of incubators have been invented to tors to be drawn from the ranks of academia or
mentor low-technology firms, cooperatives and non- support staff, to learn on the job, and, if they are
governmental organizations (NGO’s) as well as high fortunate, be mentored by experienced incubator
tech firms. directors.
Although incubation occurs in a variety of set- 4a. Availability of experts in business and technol-
tings to achieve a number of objectives, the basic ogy to assist entrepreneurs in developing their
elements of the incubator model include: firm to be more successful than they could by
themselves. Some incubators have such persons
• a selection process, encouraging the improvement on the permanent staff, working intensively with
of the nascent business or organizational idea; firms.
• subsidized space, available for a limited period of 4b. Other facilities may bring experts in as consult-
time; ants, on an occasional basis, for specific
• shared services, allowing support activities to be projects.
• mentoring, education in best practices; and
• networking, introduction to potential partners and Bi-evolution of the university
• To these basic components, may be added venture Incubation is part of an internal re-ordering of the
capital, a financial mechanism to seed-fund new university that takes place through a parallel bi-
technology firms. evolution of missions and focus. The university’s
three missions of teaching, research and economic
development are evolving along parallel paths from
Norms of incubation an individual to a group perspective and from being
merely a facilitator for transferring technology to
These elements are present to various degrees in any individual firms to being a force for fostering re-
actual incubator facility or virtual incubator pro- gional economic and social development.
gram. The incubator is a flexible model that can be From at least the mid-19th century the university
creatively adapted to the needs of countries and re- has expanded its missions from teaching and conser-
gions at different levels of technology and business vation of knowledge to research: the first academic
development. Incubation includes the following revolution (Jencks and Reisman, 1968). A second
principles and practices which may be formulated as revolution, primarily based upon these research
norms (a) and counter-norms (b) : capacities, occurs as the university takes on the mis-
sion of economic and social development.
1a. A selection process for admission to the incuba- The university, a medieval institution for the
tor that encourages entrepreneurs to formulate conservation and preservation of knowledge, is suc-
their business ideas carefully for evaluation by cessively transformed into the research university
committees of business and technical experts. and then the entrepreneurial university. This devel-
The application and decision-making process by opment is not so much a matter of evolution, the
which new enterprises are accepted into the in- capture and retention of chance events, but of an
cubator is important in identifying firms with internal dynamic working itself out. Indeed, research
potential for growth and other relevant criteria of is inherent in teaching, as entrepreneurial science is
1b. On the other hand, some incubators operate ac-
cording to the principle that, ‘the entrepreneur
knows best.’ If the business concept sounds sen-
sible, if space is available and they can afford to The university’s missions of teaching,
pay the rent, admission is granted. research and economic development
2a. Location in a common venue so that entrepre-
neurs can interact and learn from each other
are evolving from being merely a
informally as they organize their firms. facilitator for transferring technology
2b. Virtual incubators may host meetings to en- to individual firms to being a force for
courage ‘learning’ among firms and clubs of
graduated firms may be organized to continue fostering regional economic and social
this process once firms have left the incubator. development
3a. An experienced entrepreneur as director who can
mentor the founders of new firms. Ideally, the

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Incubation of incubators

inherent in research. Teaching holds within it the including: direct access to research groups, mediated
potential for new ideas and interpretations to be cre- access through technology transfer offices and
ated even if the intention is simply to retrieve lost through incubators. Each offers the possibility of
texts and pass on existing knowledge. New condi- access to potential investments at different stages of
tions inevitably appear that influence teachers to the research and commercialization process.
reinterpret old knowledge and produce new findings. The development of an assisted linear model of
Similarly, research directly arises from teaching technology transfer begins with a liaison office, go-
even as useful results arise from the conduct of re- ing a step beyond producing trained graduates and
search. Researchers’ alertness to such possibilities is publications to take knowledge out of the university.
the sufficient condition for entrepreneurial science, In a second stage, knowledge is encapsulated in a
while the availability of opportunities and mecha- technology and moved out by a technology transfer
nisms to realize these implications is the necessary office created to identify, patent, market and license
condition for knowledge-based economic growth. intellectual property. In a third stage, knowledge and
However, these possibilities are immanent and re- technology is embodied in a firm and moved out of
quire nurturance, mentoring and incubation to be the university by an entrepreneur. There are signif i-
realized; otherwise they remain merely potentials. cant differences among these formats with respect to
In addition to the academic revolutions that incor- the development stage, intermediation process and
porate new functions within the university, there is a legal status of the technology.
parallel organizational transformation of the univer-
sity. A bi-evolution of the university is occurring, a Direct access to the research stream
shift from an individual to a group focus in all three
academic missions. The change is most obvious in The research group where discovery occurs is, of
research, especially in the sciences where graduate course, the earliest point of access to technology
students, post doctorates and technicians often sur- emanating from academic research. Universities
round the professor. In effect this group acts as a have established liaison offices to facilitate contacts
‘quasi-firm’ in the university, having all the aspects but firms often make their own contacts through
of a company except for the profit motive. former students and personal connections. More in-
There is a similar transformation in the mission of tensive methods, such as the Discovery Exchange,
economic and social development. Instead of a focus with observers resident in the research group, have
on an individual patent or technology transfer, there also been proposed to mine the basic research
is a concern with the university playing a broader stream.
role in its region. Sometimes, as in Portugal, where Nevertheless, deals are made on the basis of both
regional political entities are weak, the university actual and potential discovery. Venture capitalists
plays a role of ‘regional innovation organizer (RIO)’ have dealt directly with professors to build firms on
bringing together local businesses and municipalities the perceived commercial potential of a discovery or
to develop an innovation strategy. a research field. They have also done so based on
The shift toward a focus on groups is more diffi- intellectual capacities of faculty members and their
cult to discern in education since it typically takes research groups even before a specific product is
place in non-traditional academic contexts. Just as identified. Bob Swanson and Genentech is the proto-
the university trains individual students and sends typical example of the former; the founding of Syn-
them out into the world, it is now doing the same for ergen in Boulder, Colorado represents the latter
organizations. This organizational training occurs approach.
mostly outside the classroom setting and for pur- The technology transfer office, having vetted the
poses other than education. For example, at a special offerings of various research groups, is an interme-
graduation ceremony of firms from the incubator diate source. The concept for an intermediary org-
facility at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio anization to support academic technology transfer
de Janeiro, one company had come out of an applied and commercialization is not new. The Research
physics research group to develop oil exploration Corporation was founded in the early 20th century
technology while other firms developed software. by University of California chemist Frederick
Cottrell, the inventor of the electrostatic precipitator,
for this purpose. The Research Corporation handled
Steps toward incubation technology transfer for universities and dealt directly
with professors before universities took over the
Informal transfer through consultation, faculty stu- technology transfer themselves. As universities in-
dent relationships and ‘knowledge flows’ through ternalized the technology transfer function, the need
publication are being superseded by more formal for the Research Corporation declined. 2
mechanisms that not only package the technology
into discrete sets of rights but also advance the ex- Transfer office as a screening mechanism
ploration of its commercial potential. The following
section discusses points of entry to the university for Organizational innovations such as technology
independent investors and firms seeking technology transfer offices provide a window on academic

122 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

discoveries with commercial potential and a point of

contact to reach the academics who originated them.
Academic scientists and engineers differ greatly in
Industrialists had to learn about
their interest in realizing financial gain from their new ideas as an audience to the
discoveries and in their ability to pursue the practical academic process, then take them up
implications of their research. Even if they do not
have a pecuniary motivation themselves, transfer and use them: incubator-assisted
offices can make arrangements to protect and license academics, with little business
discoveries on their behalf and that of the university. experience, were expected to start new
The technology transfer office encourages faculty
members to think of their research in terms of its firms based on technology invented in
technological applications and to present their dis- the university
coveries that they think have commercial potential
for evaluation.
By law and regulation, US academics receiving
federal research funds are obliged to report to the
administration their research results with useful Incubators as a source of deal flow
and/or commercial-potential findings. In practice,
they may do so or not, as they are inclined. For those The incubator is, of course, a later stage source,
so inclined to disclose, their technological and offering access to technology attached to an entre-
commercial awareness only has to be as high as to preneur. Incubator firms at various stages of
indicate to the office that they think they have in- technology-push and market-pull are taken beyond
vented something with potential practical use and/or an inventio n disclosure, on the one hand, and a nap-
financial significance. They need not take any fur- kin sketch, on the other. Aggregation of such a
ther step. group of new enterprises simplifies the search for
The technology transfer office operates as a dual investors. Investments can be made at the point of
search mechanism pulling technology out of univer- admission into the incubator, at the mid-point of
sity research groups, on the one hand, and finding a their residence, and after graduation, in a three-tiered
place for it in industry, on the other. The office func- process. After additional vetting of the companies,
tions as a microscope internally, focusing on the best funds can be invested in the best firms in the incuba-
candidates within the university and as a telescope, tor to assist their growth and movement out of the
externally, looking broadly for the best licensing incubator.
opportunities. After an initial internal screening, a University-originated technologies are typically
transfer office will typically seek external interest very early stage. Although some may be ready for
before committing to incur the expense of patenting. transfer to existing firms, there is often a gap be-
A very few licenses typically provide most of the tween the interests of industry and the ideas of uni-
income from patenting academic technology. In re- versity inventors. While many academics have
cent years, universities have explored various ways unrealistic expectations for their inventions, the pro-
to add value to early stage university technologies cess of preparing a business plan for entry into an
by conducting marketing surveys, seeking develop- incubator can provide a reality test. Ideally, the firm-
ment support and embodying the technology in a formation process clarifies business and technology
firm. concepts.

Research group
(quasi- firm)
Liaison office
Contract Technology
transfer office
Intellectual property
Patent Incubator
License Technology

Figure 2. Co-evolution and multi-linearity of university–industry relations

Science and Public Policy April 2002 123

Incubation of incubators

From linear to interactive incubation • ‘inter-networking,’ or operating through external

networks among incubators and firms from differ-
The development of the incubator exemplifies a shift ent incubators; and
in academic –industry relations from a linear model • ‘extra-networking,’ or operating through the for-
going from university to society, to an interactive mation of new organizations in incubators from
model, with a flow of influence in both directions heterogeneous entities.
(see Figure 2). Such a model assumes that the uni-
versity educational and research agenda can be posi- In the case of the latter two types, it is also instruc-
tively influenced by societal as well as disciplinary tive to view them against the background of the
interests. University incubators were expected to particular academic institutions in which they
speed up knowledge flows. developed.
The normal academic process is to write a paper,
present at a conference and eventually publish in a Private incubator: intra-networking
journal. People in industry were expected to learn
about new ideas as an audience to this academic pro- The private incubator typically starts from a single
cess and then take them up and put them to use. The business idea, something of a departure from the
incubator-assisted academics, with little or no bus i- classic university incubator, which theoretically is
ness experience, were expected to start new firms open to ideas for firms from all parts of the univer-
based on technology invented in the university. sity. In the private incubator, the overall business
concept is apportioned among constituent firms,
Reverse linear incubation which at a very early stage start doing business with
each other. For example, in Internet businesses,
University incubators originally adhered to a linear which have been particularly active in intra-
model of starting from academic research; soon, networking, one firm typically does another’s coding
however, that direction was reversed. Sometimes or graphics.
insufficient academics were interested in starting
companies to fill the facility, and former employees Brazilian incubator movement: inter-networking
of nearby large companies, learning about the incu-
bator from local publicity, asked if they too could Since the introduction of the incubator concept in
join it. Some of these technical entrepreneurs were the mid-1980s, incubators have developed rapidly in
simply interested in moving their firms out of their Brazil, gaining support not only from universities,
homes to a prestigious location; the common support their original sponsors, but also from government at
services and easier access to university facilities, federal, state and local levels and from industry as-
faculty and students attracted others. Thus, the uni- sociations. In federal and state universities with a
versity incubator became a mix of academics and strong ‘public’ tradition, there was initially consid-
business people starting firms in the same place, erable resistance to incubators among many faculty
with each learning from the other. members on the grounds that they represented the
‘privatization of the university.’
Networked incubation Instead of building new facilities immediately,
early Brazilian incubators, such as the one at the
An incubator can assist the entrepreneur in linking Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, developed
their networks and inserting the new firm into firms in temporary space, incubating themselves.
broader networks. Whether started from the business When the director of the incubator, Mauricio
or technical side, the firm-formation process often Guedes, gained construction funds from the munic i-
takes off through collaboration among persons with pality, the issue of official university approval was
different skills and assets. A successful firm typi- brought to a head.
cally arises from a confluence of various networks: Resistance to the university mentoring private
business, financial, technical and so on. The sources businesses inspired a creative transformation of the
of these networks may be old school colleagues, incubator concept to fulfill the university’s public
family, friends and co-workers. It is also possible to mission in non-traditional terms. To create jobs,
extend the concept of networking from individual ‘popular cooperatives’ were formed by the Graduate
firms to incubators and from individual networked School of Engineering (COPPE) of the Federal Uni-
incubators to networks of incubators. versity of Rio de Janeiro. The university invited low-
income people from neighboring favelas (slums) for
A typology of incubator networking training, shaping them into a group cooperative to
perform services and then sending them out into the
It is instructive to categorize incubators according to world as an organization. The popular cooperative
their networking dynamics: incubators were seen as successful and were ex-
tended through a national program to other parts of
• ‘intra-networking,’ or operating through internal Brazil.
networks among firms within incubators; An incubator movement arose through these

124 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

various sources of support. Several permutations of centers were organized along the themes of the Al-
the university business incubator have been created bany incubators, one in biotechnology and a second
such as the ‘hotel for firms,’ a pre-incubation space in the areas of micro-electronics, semi-conductors,
for the firm-founder to hone their concept, find part- computers, software and atmospherics.
ners and raise funds. The Brazilian national govern-
ment, which from the 70s had put most of its S&T
resources into large projects, began to redirect its Incubators and regional development
efforts, especially in an era of reduced funds, to as-
sist incubator development. The growth of incubation is an instance of science,
Other levels of government, state and local, also technology and innovation policy arising from a dy-
became involved. For example, municipalities took namic of university–industry–government interac-
notice of the innovation and supported the growth of tions rather than solely from government actions.
incubators by providing financing and other help. The method of change in the triple helix appears
Incubators were started not only by universities but strange: it is not solely market driven and not sole ly
together with municipalities, and not only in the cit- policy driven; nobody runs the show alone.
ies that had universities but in other municipalities The triple helix model of semi-autonomous spirals
as well. moves actors out of their institution-bound mindset
Networking among incubators, and firms from into a hybrid framework in which each internalizes
different Brazilian incubators, occurred extensively. some of the other’s perspectives and ‘takes the role
For example, at the incubator in the Federal Univer- of the other.’ The university takes a role in helping
sity of Fluminense (UFF) a content firm was based start up businesses and in encouraging the develop-
on a software platform from a firm in another incu- ment of regional ‘clusters;’ firms collaborate and
bator. A network of experienced directors mentored share knowledge, moving closer to an academic
the director, who had come to the job from the model; industry moves closer to the university; and
university library. government encourages this interplay both by pro-
The Rio de Janeiro network meets on a monthly viding a regulatory environment that stimulates in-
basis to discuss common issues. The national meet- terchange and by acting as a ‘public venture
ings of ANPROTEC bring together academic ana- capitalist.’
lysts of incubation together with incubator directors As entrepreneurial academic activities intensify,
and personnel, providing an ongoing feedback of they may ignite a self-generating process of firm-
research to the incubation process, sponsored by the formation, no longer directly tied to a particular uni-
association itself, as well as by Brazilian research versity. The growth of industrial conurbations
agencies. Networking helps explain the rapid growth around universities, supported by government re-
of the incubator movement, especially to universities search funding, has become the hallmark of a re-
and municipalities with less than optimum resources. gional innovation system, exemplified by Silicon
Valley; the profile of knowledge-based economic
Albany model: extra-networking development was further raised by the founding of
Genentech and other biotechnology companies
The extra-networked incubator, typified in the Al- based on academic research in the 1980s. Once
bany model brings together heterogeneous elements takeoff occurs in the USA only the private sector is
from various sources to create new hybrid organiza- usually credited; the role of government, for exam-
tions. The University at Albany lacked a sufficient ple, the Defense Research Projects Agency
research base to systematically develop new tech- (DARPA) in founding SUN, Silicon Graphics and
nology firms, the traditional incubator function. To Cisco is forgotten.
generate critical mass, the university invited local Most regions, however, lack innovation systems;
high-tech start-ups, R&D units of larger firms, rather they are innovation environments with some
laboratories from the state government and research elements to encourage innovation present and others
groups from the university into the incubator. The missing. In such situations it is important for some
objective was to attract funds from the state and fed- group or organization to play the role of RIO and
eral governments to develop new research centers. bring the various elements of the triple helix to-
Frederick Terman built Stanford into a research gether to foster new projects. Things start to grow
powerhouse after World War II by concentrating on around concepts, like Silicon Alle y in New York and
‘steeples of excellence,’ or selected areas of faculty Oresund in Copenhagen/southern Sweden, that unite
expertise. He held that it took a generation to politicians, businesspersons and academics. Imagery
achieve academic distinction in a field. The emerg- is also important, since there often are not strong
ing role of the Albany incubator was to speed up the market reasons to allocate resources to development
academic development process. A university official of a region.
stated the problem as follows: “We don’t have the Regions may be viewed as ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ de-
resources of a major research university, we aspire pending upon the presence or absence of business
to be a major research university so we are looking and technology development services. Whether it
at non-traditional paths to get to that goal.” Several makes sense for an incubator to develop its own

Science and Public Policy April 2002 125

Incubation of incubators

services largely depends upon their availability

within the surrounding region. A region that is rich
in requisites such as venture capital may not have to
Organizing incubators can be
develop them in direct association with the incuba- systematized by formalizing the
tor. On the other hand, a region that is lacking such Brazilian experience in which an older
tools may find it necessary to combine them with the
incubator project. incubator facility at a large university
The University at Stony Brook developed a series serves as an informal hub, mentoring
of initiatives, such as visits by lawyers and account- and benchmarking for newer
ants, to compensate for its ‘green field’ site on the
outer edge of suburbia. On the other hand, the Uni- incubators at smaller universities
versity at Albany saw no need for such measures
since rele vant services were readily available in the
Capitol region.
The incubation process may be viewed as a ma-
trix, with some slots more or less filled and various node of a network of incubators and as a training
gaps left open in different countries and regions. facility for future incubator directors. This concept
Incubator firms in most countries typically face the brings together the training students in Mexican in-
problem of lack of access to seed venture capital on cubators with the networking of incubators in Brazil
reasonable terms. FINEP, the Brazilian national de- into an entity explicitly designed as an educational
velopment agency, has launched INNOVA, a pro- facility to train incubator directors and firm founders
gram to create funds to fill this gap, while Israel in firm-formation and networking.
provides a grant of funds upon admission to its incu- The ‘incubator of incubators’ concept for a model
bator program. In Denmark, there is a fund to invest training facility and linkage node is especially use
in incubator firms. but a problem is lack of market ful to begin the incubation process in a region or
representation abroad. An incubator at the National country, such as Honduras, lacking incubators as of
Technological University in Norway has addressed 2000. Such a facility could send out trained people
this issue by stationing a representative at an incuba- from the ‘mother’ or hub incubator to staff ‘daugh-
tor in Palo Alto. ter’ incubators. For example, from an initial site in
San Pedro Sula, incubators could be replicated in
The teaching incubator other cities and towns in Honduras as part of a net-
work to promote technology transfer and diffusion
The incubator has evolved into a multi-faced entity of new business models. The Polytechnico Milan
for entrepreneurial education and as a support struc- has recently adopted this model to link incubators at
ture for innovation, a broader purpose than develop- its satellite campuses in the Lombardy region to the
ing firms from academic research. In addition to main campus in Milan.
organizational innovations, such as the incubator,
the creation of an entrepreneurial culture provides Organizational technology transfer
the sufficient condition for a wave of incubation and
firm-formation. Various mechanisms exist for transferring ‘hard’
Gustavo Cadena, the Director of the incubator at technologies; the transfer of ‘soft’ organizational
the National Autonomous University of Mexico technologies is happenstance. Sometimes, it occurs
(UNAM), developed the idea of using the incubator through professional tourism as visitors of various
as a training facility, to bring together the engineer- nationalities took the Stanford science park model
ing and business students. Instead of the different back to their own countries. Incubators typically
streams of students being educated separately, they lack the ability to assist their firms to reach partners
would also have some common courses on entrepre- and markets in other countries. This is especially
neurship in a classroom at the incubator. Further- a problem in developing countries and small
more, there was the opportunity to work in incubator nations. A mechanism is required to systematically
firms so that they might think in the future of organize incubator networking across regions and
starting new firms themselves. countries.
The concept for a World Innovation Network
The incubator of incubators (WIN) is to do for incubators what an incubator does
for its firms — provide a support structure to enable
The process of organizing incubators can be sys- them to extend their activities into a broader arena
tematized by formalizing the Brazilian networking and thereby enhance their chances of success. A
experience in which an older incubator facility at a small staff would coordinate and facilitate introduc-
large university serves as an informal hub, mentor- tions and collaborations among its members. For
ing and benchmarking for newer incubators at example, an incubator firm in one country might
smaller universities. A model incubator or ‘incubator need a partner to assist in developing its product or
of incubators’ could be established as the central might wish to locate a sales representative at an

126 Science and Public Policy April 2002

Incubation of incubators

incubator in another country. At present such ar- mission of economic and social development, will
rangements typically happen by chance. be reflected in the inclusion of incubators and uni-
versity–industry joint-research centers in academic
buildings, on the one hand, and the establishment of
Conclusion: the university of the future distance learning and other outreach capabilities on
the other.
The University of the Future will include an incuba- The future of the university also resides in strat-
tor as a regular feature along with classrooms, faculty egic alliances among academic and other knowl-
offices and laboratories in each department or edge-based organizations, in virtual institutes and
academic unit. Technology transfer and incubation of research groups bringing together students and
firms is being transformed from happenstance occur- teachers, at various levels, in joint projects, and in
rences to an organized business, with significant educating organizations as well as individuals in
implications for the university’s role in society. entrepreneurship centers and incubators.
The incubator process can also have a positive ef- The university will play a more prominent role in
fect back on research and teaching at the university. society, through exchanging functions with industry
As we have seen, the incubator at the State Univer- and government, and by creating the pre-conditions
sity of New York at Albany enhances the research for regional economic and social development. The
capabilities of the university by incubating new structure of the triple helix depicts the university as a
research centers and firms. Firms in the incubator regional innovation organizer as well as a disinter-
collaborate with professors from the university and ested observer and social critic, a capacious institu-
with laboratories from the state government. New tion capable of incorporating multiple functions and
research projects and new joint research centers have reconciling apparently contradictory objectives in
been organized through these collaborations. There the search for truth, beauty and wealth.
is no longer an assumption that there is a single
starting point of research and an end point of the
economy, or a starting point of central government
policy directing academia and industry. Notes
Academic incubation is increasingly part of a
1. Statement made at New York Academy of Sciences periodic
broader complex of university–industry relations meetings on “New York as a High Tech Region” by various
including technology transfer licensing and liaison observers in the late 1990s.
offices. These various programs are currently being 2. Research Corporation (RC) has moved up the ‘food chain,’
transforming itself into a venture capital firm that accesses
reorganized into a common administrative authority, investment opportunities through university technology trans-
on the one hand, and decentralized into individual fer offices. In its original format, as a not-for-profit entity, RC
academic units, on the other. made grants to academic researchers with the earnings from
patent licenses. The redistribution of income from the com-
As the academic entrepreneurial paradigm takes mercialization of technology in the form of ‘seed grants’ to
hold, interface capabilities spread throughout the researchers has been taken up by contemporary university
university. Within academic departments and cen- technology offices and their administrative sponsors, taking
the university a step toward becoming a self-supporting insti-
ters, faculty members and other technical personnel tution based on the capitalization of know ledge. The next
may be assigned special responsibility to assess the step in this progression is the holding of equity in firms
commercial salience of research findings and en- based on academic research, the most recent development
in university endowment management strategy in the USA
courage interaction with external partners. For ex- that has undergone a shift in risk orientation from preferred
ample, a faculty member in the Columbia University to common stock and, more recently, to venture capital, as
Medical School divides her time between traditional well.
3. For additional information on international incubation, see
academic and technology transfer responsibilities. World Conference on Business Incubation www.wcbi.com.
The success of incubation will ultimately be seen For examples of national associations, see: ANPROTEC
in the disappearance of the incubator as a separate (Brazil) and National Business Incubation Association (NBIA)
entity in a remote or off-campus site. The teaching
laboratory originated in an out-building of the Uni-
versity of Giessen, Germany in the mid-19th cen-
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