Innovation & Design

Science Parks vs. Boutique Labs


Innovation watchers say today's hottest startup incubators are small, nimble outfits that collaborate and leverage their strengths via the Web

When futurist Anthony Townsend ponders the world's up-and-coming innovation hot spots, he tends to skip over the gargantuan, multibillion-dollar science parks going up in cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Seoul. Instead, he homes in on places like Kitchen Budapest, or Kibu. An artists' colony of sorts on a hip street in downtown Budapest, Kibu is what Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future, describes as a "pop-up lab."

Founded in 2007 with a few million dollars from Magyar Telekom, Kibu leases space in a small, loft-like building to a couple of dozen people with the hope that common interests and random encounters will bring them together to create digital media and communications products. It already has had a promising commercial success: Software startup Prezi developed a tool to make visually interesting presentations that some analysts say could challenge Microsoft (MSFT)'s PowerPoint.

While Kibu is hardly a science park—it's not affiliated with a university or research institute, for instance—it could mark a turning point in product development. For the last 40 years, research parks have been the model for moving ideas from university labs into the marketplace. The parks also have strived to incubate startups that could grow into corporations that would keep their headquarters and talent close to home.

That campus-centric view is becoming out of date, Townsend argues in a study to be released at the International Association of Science Parks annual conference June 1-4 at North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. As Web 2.0 tools and telecommunication make it easier for inventors, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs to work wherever they want, they also are fostering novel kinds of "knowledge ecosystems."

"Research Clouds"

Low-budget pop-up labs like Kibu are but one example of new kinds of physical spaces for collaboration tracked by Townsend as part of an Institute for the Future project called Science in Place. There also are "boutique research parks" like Snowpolis, in Vuokatti, Finland, which specializes in cold-weather technology for sportswear. In addition, there are "coworking hubs" that are shared office spaces for clusters of tech startups in big cities, "mobile incubators" that shift lab facilities from place to place as companies develop, and even "disposable labs" that may be set up for a specific purpose for just a few months.

Few of these experimental collaboration spaces are impressive on their own. But stitched together through the Internet, Townsend says, they become part of greater "research clouds." Today's traditional science parks must learn to embrace and adapt to this new paradigm, Townsend warns: "In the future we will see new R&D ecosystems that require existing parks to either evolve quickly or become irrelevant."

Virtual labs are one of several megatrends Townsend says could transform science parks over the next 5 to 20 years. Some changes will favor traditional research centers, especially those built on world-class universities. He predicts that new products and services will continue to emerge from creative clusters with "strong, unique competitive advantages such as cutting-edge scientific knowledge, new research tools, and technical practices."

To stay relevant in the 21st century, however, university science parks cannot remain islands. They will have to develop links to other clusters of creativity far beyond their campuses, be it with other university-based science parks or bohemian hangouts in Budapest.

Engardio is an international senior writer for BusinessWeek .

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