| 12 minute read

Open innovation at higher education institutions: A pathway to collaborative progress

Jose Villagran
Open innovation

Imagine a corporate ecosystem where the boundaries between ingenuity and external influence blur, where innovation flows freely like a river nourishing fertile ground. This is the essence of open innovation models. Traditionally, companies with such models act as conduits, drawing insights from diverse sources – customers, competitors, and even entire sectors of society – to enrich their internal innovation processes.

The term, open innovation, was coined in 2003 by Henry Chesbrough, and encapsulates a dynamic approach to catalysing progress. At its core, open innovation is the art of amplifying creativity by seamlessly integrating external knowledge and ideas with internal resources and research endeavours.

Yet, how can this business strategy be applied to universities, and what is the role of open innovation in university-industry engagement? This article explores how universities can harness the power of open innovation through five key models, each offering different approaches to UBC, and describes popular cases of the application of the models in companies and universities across the globe.

Open innovation at universities

The concept of open innovation was initially conceived in the context of industry practices and, ever since the term was coined, universities have increasingly positioned themselves as instrumental actors in the open innovation process as the main sources of knowledge and ideas[1]. As universities strengthen their role as the primary producers of knowledge and transform into entrepreneurial agents, their potential to serve as not only as catalysts for innovation and economic development[2], but also as protagonists of the open innovation process becomes increasingly apparent.

Certain aspects of external engagement by universities, such as industry-driven research are great examples of open innovation, as universities open themselves to input from external sources – these sources can range from companies, hospitals, museums to the wider civil society. Through this external input into knowledge creation activities, the practical application of university research is also improved, therewith increasing the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of university research and reducing the ‘valley of death’[3].

However, open innovation does not limit itself to just research activities, and is also applied to teaching and educational activities at universities. One example of this would be the implementation of challenge-based learning in the classrooms, allowing students to directly participate in the open innovation process to solve real problems brought up by industry or governmental stakeholders. These activities better prepare students for their future careers and help foster an entrepreneurial mindset among them[4].

Given the variety of open innovation models, we have selected five of the most common ones to go through them in detail and explore the implications that each of them have in the context of UBC.

Outside-In Open Innovation

In the Outside-In Open Innovation model, universities make use of external knowledge, ideas and technologies to enrich their educational and research agendas. By collaborating with industry, governments and society stakeholders, universities can integrate real-world challenges into their programmes and curricula, enhancing the relevance and potential impact of their activities. This model is useful for providing universities with fresh perspectives and for accelerating innovation.

1 outside in open innovation

One of the most well-known examples of this type of open innovation, due to the magnitude of the challenge it addressed is the collaboration that took place in between the University of Oxford & AstraZeneca in order to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus disease.

In 2020, a partnership was formed between the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Oxford University brought its scientific expertise and AstraZeneca contributed its large-scale manufacturing capabilities, allowing for rapid development and distribution of the vaccine and showcasing how university research can be accelerated and scaled up through industry partnerships to tackle global challenges[5]

This case exemplifies how the Outside-In model enables rapid innovation and societal impact by integrating university research with industry resources and expertise.

Inside-Out Open Innovation

The Inside-Out Open Innovation model focuses on exporting knowledge and technology generated at the university to the broader market. Traditional forms of technology transfer – spin-offs, licenses or joint ventures – would fall under this category. This approach facilitates the commercialisation of research and can be used by universities to transform academic advancements into practical solutions and products. Additionally, Inside-Out Open Innovation models encourage universities to proactively approach industry stakeholders and other potential partners to explore collaboration opportunities.

2 inside out open innovation

Inside-out open innovation models are somewhat common at universities, since they often fall under the umbrella of traditional technology transfer processes, making them more likely to be applied at universities across the globe. Two very good examples of this type of open innovation are Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), both with successful experience in research commercialisation and with a strong emphasis on spin-offs and spin-outs.

TUM actively promotes the commercialisation of its research through spin-offs and has dedicated programmes to support their researchers in transforming their innovations into products that can make it to the market and have an impact in the real world.

In 2002 the UnternehmerTUM Center for Innovation and Founding was created and, since then, TUM has strengthened their offering and has been dubbed as one of the most entrepreneurial universities in the world. Moreover, TUM has created new spaces, labs and facilities for makers and founders, increasing their connections with the start-up ecosystem and contributing to innovation and economic growth in Munich[6].

The case of Delft University of Technology shows some interesting nuances, as TU Delft is known for its strong ties with industry and active technology transfer initiatives. Working closely with the municipality of Delft and entities such as YES!Delft – a tech incubator recognised as a top challenger in Europe by the UBI Global Ranking Report[7] – and NEXT Delft – a tech accelerator well integrated into the technology transfer pipeline formed by TU Delft, YES!Delft and NEXT Delft – TU Delft approach includes licensing agreements, partnerships and the creation of joint ventures, facilitating the commercialisation of research and technological innovations developed within the university.

On the spin-outs front, Delft Enterprises specifically invests in spin-outs of TU Delft, providing a number of advisory services and funding to students and university staff who are interested in starting their own company.

This case shows how the Inside-Out model can increase the influence that universities have in the entrepreneurial – and innovation – ecosystem in their regions, driving development and growth[8].

Coupled Open Innovation 

In Coupled Open Innovation, the exchange of ideas and resources between university and industry is fundamentally mutual. This model puts the emphasis on reciprocal benefit and the establishment of give-and-take relationships. This model proposes partnerships that enhance both academic research – and teaching – and industry innovation through shared rewards and risks. One example is university-industry research collaborations.

3 coupled open innovation

A good example of coupled open innovation, in which the development of symbiotic relationships and mutual benefits are prioritised are the numerous collaborations between the MIT and the Fraunhofer institute throughout the past decades.

These collaborations show a long-standing research connection between the MIT and the Fraunhofer Institute, focusing on a variety of technology-related topics. These collaborations capitalise on the MIT’s academic and research capabilities with Fraunhofer’s applied research focus, allowing both institutions to share knowledge and resources, creating a truly symbiotic relationship that augments the outputs for both parties.

Another interesting case of coupled innovation started in 2018, with Microsoft and Cambridge University partnering to create the Microsoft Research-Cambridge University Machine Learning Initiative. This collaboration, focused on advancing machine learning technologies, facilitates profound university-industry integration where Microsoft and Cambridge University jointly develop new algorithms and applications for machine learning.

This partnership goes beyond research and promotes the exchange of ideas and people across institutions. Thus, educators from the University of Cambridge teach at Microsoft and contribute to industry-led projects, and Microsoft researchers teach at the University of Cambridge, enhancing the exchange of knowledge. Through this initiative, both parties speed up the development of new technologies and ensure the applicability of academic research to real world problems[9].

Crowdsourcing Innovation

In Crowdsourcing Innovation models, universities leverage the collective intelligence of large groups of people beyond academics or industry partners, opening themselves to a much broader range of ideas coming from one or several sectors of society. This open innovation model captures ideas and solutions from citizens, experts, industry representatives, etc., which provides universities with access to quick and diverse input.  

The creativity that the crowd brings to this model allows for the development of solutions to complex and large-scale problems, democratising innovation and increasing the applicability of the research.

4 crowdsourcing innovation

Two cases that illustrate the potential of using crowdsourcing innovation strategically LEGO Ideas and NASA Crowdsourcing. Both organisations have their crowdsourcing element well integrated within their operations, allowing them to benefit from collective intelligence.

LEGO Ideas is an online platform where individuals can submit their own LEGO set designs. Then, the community votes on the designs and popular designs are considered by LEGO for production, allowing them to capitalise on the collective creativity. Moreover, this approach ensures a regular flow of new ideas into the company and allows LEGO to stay directly connected with their customers.

Many community-designed LEGO sets have been taken to production and marketed, becoming successful products and highlighting how tapping into collective intelligence can inform the development of new products or ideas[10].

The second example of this model that we want to highlight is NASA Crowdsourcing. NASA uses crowdsourcing for a variety of projects, from algorithms and software development, to problem-solving in engineering. By looking at the global crowd to get input, NASA gets access to a massive pool of solutions and ideas that can surpass internal capabilities.

Through this method, and by launching challenges and offering prizes, NASA has been able to get their hands on creative solutions and prototypes aimed at tackling problems on a wide range of topics, from space waste management to life on Mars[11].

Ecosystem Innovation 

In Ecosystem Innovation, universities are placed at the centre of a collaborative network formed by all the relevant actors in the innovation ecosystem. This model fosters multi-stakeholder collaborations with the aim to drive – often regional – innovation, aligning the capabilities and objectives of industry, government and wider society. As sources of knowledge, universities lead these collaborations, increasing their reputation and contributing directly to the sustainable development of their regions and beyond.

5 ecosystem innovation

An example of ecosystem innovation would be Innovate Cambridge, which is a regional initiative whose objective is to foster innovation in Cambridge. The initiative brings together regional stakeholders including universities, industry representatives, local government and other entities to co-create solutions that can drive regional development.

The collaborative approach that Innovate Cambridge promotes, puts the emphasis on translating ideas into businesses, ensuring sustainable and inclusive growth, and partnering for impact[12].


The implementation of Open Innovation models at universities offers a pathway to enhance research and teaching impact, foster learning, and contribute to societal progress. It represents a shift from the traditional view of universities as isolated ivory towers to dynamic participants in the innovation ecosystem.

To the extent that universities accept and realize their full potential as core knowledge providers in our societies, they can leverage that knowledge and strategically facilitate, and even steer, innovation and the direction that innovation ecosystems take in their regions.

The five models presented here invite universities to consider a protagonist role in driving innovation, and to fulfil their potential as key drivers of knowledge and engines of regional development. By adopting these open innovation frameworks, universities can act as catalysts of economic growth. They facilitate collaborative cross-sectoral efforts, enhance the practical application of research and align education with industry needs, ultimately fostering an environment where innovative solutions can be developed, and societal challenges can be addressed more effectively.

In conclusion, it becomes necessary for universities to consider the adoption and integration of open innovation models to actively become drivers of innovation and regional development, as well as to ensure they remain relevant in a world in which the pressing global challenges demand, more and more, collaborative solutions. Universities are encouraged to dive deeper into the topic of open innovation to polish or redefine their impact.


[1] Laine, K., Leino, M., & Pulkkinen, P. (2015). Open Innovation Between Higher Education and Industry

[2] Huggins, R., Prokop, D. & Thompson, P. Universities and open innovation: the determinants of network centrality. J Technol Transf 45, 718–757 (2020).

[3] Perkmann, M., King, Z., & Pavelin, S. (2013). Engaging excellence? Effects of faculty quality on university engagement with industry. Research Policy, 42(2), 281-295.

[4] Etzkowitz, H. (2003). Research groups as ‘quasi-firms’: the invention of the entrepreneurial university. Research Policy, 32(1), 109-121.

[5] University of Oxford & AstraZeneca partnership to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, accesible via https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/article/2020-11-23-oxford-university-breakthrough-on-global-covid-19-vaccine

[6] Technical University of Munich (TUM). More information at https://www.tum.de/en/innovation/entrepreneurship/about-us

[7] UBI Global. More information at https://www.ubi-global.com/

[8] Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). More information at https://www.tudelft.nl/en/innovation-impact/entrepreneurship

[9] Microsoft Research-Cambridge University Machine Learning Initiative. More information at https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/collaboration/microsoft-research-cambridge-university-machine-learning-initiative/overview/

[10] LEGO Ideas. More information at https://ideas.lego.com/howitworks

[11] NASA Crowdsourcing. More information at https://www.nasa.gov/prizes-challenges-and-crowdsourcing/

[12] Innovate Cambridge. More information at https://www.innovatecambridge.com/

Ready for more?

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Four approaches to technology transfer at Higher Education Institutions or our podcast episode The 51-year evolution of KU Leuven’s Tech Transfer.

Jose Villagrán-Polo (author) is the Deputy Manager R&D Projects at UIIN and works on topics related to university-business collaboration, entrepreneurial education and the role of university-based incubators in their regions.

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