Start-up and innovation ecosystems: Testbeds

It’s no surprise that academic research often lags behind market developments (Brown & Mawson, 2017). What if, to help us close this gap, we thought of practitioners and policy makers as researchers? What if we consider them not users of research but co-producers?

Sound strange? It shouldn’t. This trend is underway in the agricultural sector. Farmers, once thought of as only the users of agricultural research, are now being seen as partners in a research and development system to accelerate innovation in food production. (MacMillan and Benton, 2014)

The parallels to entrepreneurial ecosystem builders are strong. Farmers face both similar and different circumstances. Two farmers, located hundreds of miles apart, may both grow wheat, but they do so under different soil and climate conditions.  At the same time, the two farmers will innovate continuously to improve efficiency and crop yields. Despite their differences, they have lessons to share. If we consider that farmers are also innovators, new horizons for research open quite quickly.

Some of the best returns from research can come from helping farmers assess their own ideas. Putting the farmer in the center of that agricultural research system is not a new idea; the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has been conducing field labs for 30 years. These labs attract innovative farmers, early adopters of new innovations who can spread promising practices.

Here’s how they work. Groups of 5 to 15 farmers tackle a problem put forward by one of the participants. They test potential solutions up to a year in as many as four workshops conducted on one of their farms.  A guide manages the process and keeps on track. The team includes one or more researchers to provide advice on experimental design and to keep the team informed of existing studies, so that they keep focused on exploring new questions.

We are starting to explore how we can set up networks of practitioners to work with researchers. That’s the idea behind the testbed we are developing with MatchBOX in Lafayette, IN.


Brown, R., & Mason, C. (2017). Looking inside the spiky bits: a critical review and conceptualisation of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Small Business Economics, 49(1), 11–30.

MacMillan, T., & Benton, T. G. (2014). Engage farmers in research. Nature509 (7498), 25.


Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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