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Building a Home for Innovation: From Incubators to Constellations

If we’re to view innovation as a tangible discipline, we need a home for it. The concept is not new. But environment is increasingly recognized as an innovation enabler. Whether it’s a lab, incubator, or cluster, a sense of place and its accompanying resources are a key contributor to innovation success.

Considerations regarding the optimal innovation environment are somewhat contradictory: Structure a space that’s informal and unstructured. Have technology at the fingertips of the innovator, but make sure it’s unobtrusive. Build places that foster direct connection and trust, yet can access outside expertise immediately.

Cleveland Clinic has been the convener, architect, landlord, and tenant in practically every physical manifestation known to the innovation ecosystem. This chapter will visit all the addresses of innovation—the buildings, neighborhoods, and broader geographies—and share our lessons learned.

Place is important because innovation occurs optimally at the intersection of knowledge domains. Throughout history, the greatest scholarly advances, technical breakthroughs, and artistic developments occurred in the port cities of the world, where people of different cultures convened and shared fresh ideas. For example, Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance largely because the Medicis made it a magnet for merchants, artisans, philosophers, architects, scientists, and musicians.1

I subscribe to the law of propinquity, which means nearness in place or time, amplified by an intimate intellectual connection. Propinquity differs from simple geographic closeness because the term implies physical proximity and cultural alignment, two critical variables for a great personal relationship, professional partnership, or creative collaboration. Propinquity can accelerate innovation victories and increase their value.

Our job as innovation leaders is to foster propinquity—to network creative people, new ideas, and necessary resources to maximize opportunities and the likelihood of success. Cleveland Clinic, as one of the world’s iconic medical systems, has the gravitational pull to attract colleagues with prodigious talent and big ideas. So our focus is on resource allocation and process management in an environment ideally suited for innovation.

Incubators as the Front Door of Innovation

If innovation means putting ideas to work, where does innovation clock in? Where is the front door, or more important for commercialization, the loading dock or sales counter? Where do ideas become innovations and, eventually, entrepreneurial companies? The answer for the past several decades is the incubator.

When Cleveland Clinic pioneered having an innovation function within a nonprofit hospital environment, we recognized there might be limitations to how far an idea could be taken toward commercialization on our campus. We weren’t going to build a medical device fabricating plant next to our operating rooms. However, there are advantages to both the institution and the fledgling company of close proximity during the most vulnerable time of development, incubation.

This section of the chapter will: (1) define ...

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