Jan 02 2019

3 Strategies of the Most Innovative Universities

Top-ranked institutions invest in R&D, support collaboration spaces and maintain industry partnerships.

Reuters’ 2018 ranking of the most innovative universities is out, and the top names aren’t a surprise: Stanford, MIT and Harvard occupy the first three spots, as they have for four years running.

The rest of the list, however, includes both newcomers and institutions that have upped and maintained their games in the research arena. Even those at the bottom of the top 100 list, Reuters says, are “still within the top 100 on the planet. [They] produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.”

Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities already emulate the innovation strategies of these top-ranked institutions. Here are three things the top institutions have in common in their approach to innovation.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how innovative institutions are using beacon technology to interact with their students.

1. Top Institutions Spend Money on Research and Development

Almost all of the top 10 universities are listed as top spenders in R&D by the National Science Foundation. The Reuters and NSF lists don’t correlate one-to-one because the NSF looks at spending only, whereas Reuters considers metrics such as university patents won and economic impact

However, most of the top innovators rank within the top 30 spenders. For example, the University of Washington — which spent more than $1.3 billion on R&D in 2017 — ranks No. 5 on the Reuters list and on the NSF list. The University of Texas System, ranked No. 6 by Reuters, reports spending $2.7 billion on research in 2017 for its 14 universities. 

2. Innovators Invest in Physical Spaces that Support Creativity

Universities are taking cues from Pixar and other industry successes to create dedicated spaces for creating and collaborating. According to an article in The New York Times on innovative campuses, these high-tech structures seem to bridge the gap between school and real life, providing a cutting-edge, professional space for students, instructors and business players to meet, learn and pitch ideas.

One example is the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation Center, which opened in 2016. Vanderbilt, which broke into Reuters’ top 10 in 2017, climbed 10 spots from 2016, when it launched the Wond’ry, a three-story space designed for interdisciplinary collaboration. Imperial College London, one of two European universities on Reuters’ top 10 list, recently established its White City Incubator

3. Forward-Thinking Colleges Forge Long-Term Industry Partnerships

In July 2018, the University of Texas System entered into a partnership with the Pentagon to serve as an innovation center that would develop and test new technologies. Like UT, the other top innovators on the Reuters list have ongoing relationships with members of industry

These collaborations are highly beneficial for both sides, so it’s not surprising that top companies cluster around Silicon Valley (Stanford, University of California) and Boston (Harvard, MIT, Boston University) according to Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of Boston University’s College of Engineering. 

“Companies will gain greater access to cutting-edge research and scientific talent at a time when corporate R&D budgets are increasingly under pressure,” Lutchen wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Universities will gain access to financial support and partners in research at a time when government funding is shrinking.”


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