University Research Parks, Incubators and Innovation Districts in 2040: What Will They Look Like?

University Research Parks, Incubators and Innovation Districts in 2040: What Will They Look Like?

The North American university will undoubtedly operate differently in 2040 than it does today, but what will its economic outreach centers – its research parks and incubators – look like 20 years from now?

In 1951, the world’s first research park was launched at Stanford University as a partnership with the city of Palo Alto, creating a real estate entity that provided a landing pad for corporations wanting to partner with the Stanford University. Silicon Valley was still a series of orchard farms and the Stanford campus was just beginning its rise to prominence through strategic corporate alliances. This was one of the first university public-private-partnerships (P3) with a twist: a public city partnership with a private university.

In 1957, the world’s first formal business incubator started in Batavia, New York out of an abandoned farm equipment manufacturing facility, offering short term flexible leases to companies with modest balance sheets. A poultry incubator was an early tenant. Literally and figuratively, Batavia was a business incubator.

In the ensuring 70 or so years, both research parks and incubator models that were birthed in the US, have undergone tremendous global growth and tremendous transformation.

Research parks have evolved from separate, sterile, real estate focused developments to integrated, vibrant communities of innovation. With the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in the United States, allowing universities to own intellectual property from federal research funds, universities embraced the incubator model for university startup companies. But universities also added entrepreneurship training, lean start up models and other services, creating accelerators and maker spaces for student entrepreneurs. Co-working spaces – the progeny of incubators – disrupted real estate holdings in many downtowns, and the first We Work space on a university campus just opened in the UMD Discovery District in College Park, Maryland.

Globally, the Chinese national government and provincial governments embraced research parks, creating entire science cities, but largely disconnected from universities. The country of Israel, known as Start Up nation, became a giant country wide incubator, spinning out technologies ranging from Waze to Wix.

With the turn of the century, ‘innovation districts’ became the preferred appellation by city and county planners for research parks, incubators and accelerators, especially in the United States.


“These mixed user communities offer great advantage to universities and anchor institutions in attracting young talent and providing work places near homes, reducing carbon emissions and creating a sense of place and community”


With the transformation of research parks and incubators since the 1950s, what will they look like 20 years from now? Three predictions:

1) Research parks increasingly will be on the frontlines of the war for talent as places for corporations to establish satellite research labs and brand themselves with undergraduates and graduate students through convenient lab and work spaces. The biggest tech transfer event happens in a university community once a year and has nothing to do with patents. We call that tech transfer event: graduation. Corporations understand they can’t just attend a yearly career fair to recruit top students. Setting up corporate space in an incubator or research park is a strategic investment and great recruiting tool and will be a common corporate strategy in 2040.

2) The university will come to the corporation and the research park will come to the university. The Amazon HQ2 that is being built in the Washington DC area will be surrounded by a half billion dollars in new higher education investment, including new academic research centers being constructed by Va Tech and George Mason University and others. For all intents and purposes, the new Amazon HQ2 will evolve into a research park. Similar mixed corporate/university hybrid centers, with embedded co-working space, can be expected to be built across the US, and in some urban districts, such as Austin and Boston, entire downtown areas will be transformed into urban research ‘parks’. And nearly all new university research facilities being designed now will include space for companies, maker space for students, accelerator labs and other collaboration space, making mini ‘research parks’ out of new research facilities on the campus.

3) Public policies at federal, state, local and university levels will continue to increase the role and importance of research parks and accelerators/incubators. Many universities and other anchor institutions are in or near designated Opportunity Zones (OZ). The new federal OZ legislation may entice up to $100B in new investment from capital gains currently sitting on the side-lines in real estate and equity investments in companies in OZ. Some states, such as Maryland, have incorporated their own set of incentives. Municipalities are layering on their own set of incentives, often will local contracting requirements. The federal program is expected to last through 2046, meaning the impact will be long lasting and far reaching. Universities too will play their role, likely using their own resources, incorporating workforce and affordable housing elements, childcare, charter schools and other amenities into mature research park districts.

Howard Stevenson of the Harvard Business School defines entrepreneurship as ‘the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.’ Over the next 20 years, research universities and municipalities will continue to pursue entrepreneurial possibilities to invest and build research parks and accelerators, evolving the model established in the 1950s into true ‘communities of innovation’ in the United States and around the globe.



Brian Darmody is Chief Executive Officer for AURP, which represents research parks, innovation district and communities of innovation in the US, Canada and around the world. AURP has offices at the University of Arizona Research Park and a Washington DC office at U of Maryland Discovery District. Before assuming AURP role, he was Associate Vice President for Corporate and Foundation Relations at UMD, Special Vice Chancellor for Economic Development at University System of Maryland, director of UMD Center for Applied Policy Studies, head of federal and state Government Relations in the UMD President’s office and member of the University’s legal staff. Before coming to UMD, he worked for a member of US House of Representatives and member of the Maryland House of Delegates and in the Office of Attorney Advisor for the U.S. Health Care Financing Agency

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