Henry Etzkowitz’s Triple Helix
2016-04-18 | Text: Dinar Khayrutdinov | Photo ©: Jonathan Shock / dollarphotoclub, vege / dollarphotoclub, triplehelixassociation.org, UTC Library / flickr, Dmitry Nikolaev / shutterstock, nd3000 / dollarphotoclub, indukas / shutterstock;.shock / dollarphotoclub | 3662

In mid-1990s well-known scholars Henry Etzkowitz (USA) and Loet Leydesdorff (the Netherlands) designed a new model of innovational development that was called the Triple Helix. Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff saw the potential for innovation and economic development in today’s Knowledge Society in a more prominent role of the universities and in the hybridization of elements from university, industry and government to generate new institutional and social formats for the production, transfer and application of knowledge. Thus, universities in this triumvirate become a basis for innovation and practical R&D, as well as actual entrepreneurial projects. 1996 saw the first international workshop on Triple Helix in Amsterdam, and in 2009 the international Triple Helix Association was founded to study, expand and promote this concept further. In the light of the upcoming Triple Helix Association conference in Heidelberg this September we had a talk with the founding father of the Triple Helix concept and the President of the international Triple Helix Association, Professor Henry Etzkowitz from Stanford University.

- Professor Etzkowitz, please tell us how you arrived to the idea of the Triple Helix? Was it a targeted search for certain innovative development means, or was it just some consistent pattern that you accidentally found?

Perhaps somewhere in between. At that time I was studying university and its relations, primarily through interviews, and at one point I presented a paper to a sociological conference. And the organizer of the session, distinguished historian and sociologist Prof. Joseph Ben-David, wrote me a letter advising to take a good look at the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most well-known U.S. universities. So I received the needed funding and permission to do research at the History of Science Department at Harvard and at the MIT. And in the MIT archives I found very interesting letters from the governors of New England to the President of the MIT, written in the 1930s. The letters were about an organization that they had founded to take the lead in trying to renew the economy of New England which has been in a depression since as early as the 1920s, before the Great Depression. By that time industry had almost left the region. And so they called together the leadership of the region to figure out what to do. Now, in New England the unique feature was (and still is) the prominence of universities – not only Harvard and MIT but many others. So in bringing together the leadership of the region they couldn’t help but invite the academic leadership, as well as the business and political leadership. So, they arrived at an implicit triple helix – they didn’t call it that, but they created it in practice. And Karl Taylor Compton, who was the President of the MIT at that time, said to the group: “We must go beyond existing strategies because they are not working in our region – we can’t rely on bringing a national corporation to relocate or revive the SME’s here”. Which is why the only possible solution for them was to make systematic the process of creating new firms from academic research of the universities. They analyzed the strengths and the weaknesses of the region (today we would call that SWOT-analysis). They had sources of capital from previous economic successes, but they were tied up in banks and large insurance companies. They had professors and students who had research ideas but lacked business knowledge and experience. And so they formed an organization to fill those gaps and to engage in advice and seed funding, which is similar to what we now know as venture capital firms. Just after WWII this organization finally developed into the American Research and Development Corporation. So by adding the third element (university) to the traditional “government – business” partnership they got something new, creative and different. Things can happen in a triad that can’t happen in a diad – classical sociological principle. 


- So we can say that the triple helix came as a substitute to the double helix?

Yes, we can say so indeed. However, the double helix was initially a term of biology. But it turned out that society as a system is not less, and sometimes even more complex than biological organisms. A double helix was sufficient to model DNA. But to model optimum, successful innovation, we need at least three elements. Going back to your question about how the idea of the Triple Helix came about – the whole thing really “clicked” in my head some time after that research in MIT, during a workshop in Mexico on university-industry relations. In Mexico universities and industry are a part of the government system, so there you can’t think of any of these elements as separate from each other. So here is when I remembered biology and saw the image of intertwining spirals of the DNA. And the concept that was somewhat vague became explicit and clear and even acquired a visual representation.

- But a helix is a complex shape. Why did you choose helix as a representation of this model? What is the meaning behind it? Does it imply the complexity of the university-industry-government relationship or something else?

Well, in a helix you see the intertwined spirals. It’s not just a linear collaboration: over time you can see these spiral lines shifting, changing and overflowing each other. So the helix is an attempt to visually reflect the dynamic, changeable, flexible interaction. The trick is also in that you can see the fourth element there – the element of time, and the other three elements evolve and develop around it. 


- Where does the initiative in the Triple Helix model usually come from – from the government, industry or universities?

It can come from any side, and this would be absolutely fine. For example, in Silicon Valley, when there was a crisis in the 90s, when it looked that the semi-conducting industry would be lost to Japan, an organization representing the leadership of the region was called together, led by industry, but behind the industry was a professor at Stanford – Bill Miller, who had served in the government and the industry and the academia, so one leader represented all three elements of the Triple Helix. However, every situation has its own peculiarities – thus, in Silicon Valley you are going to get better attention if there is an industry leader in the forefront. In other cases you might get a different picture. Undoubtedly, we can accomplish great things even with only one element as the leading one – if, for instance, the government takes the lead. But then, with only one source of initiative, if you don’t get the right thing initially, you may waste a lot of resources, and not have the ability to change course. Whereas if you have multiple stakeholders involved you are more likely to come up with a synthesis, collect the necessary resources and succeed. So the ideal situation is when the initiative for innovation comes from all the three sides in relatively equal measure.   

- You often mention the so-called ‘entrepreneurial university’ and the central role of the university in the Triple Helix. Does that mean that university should take the leading role as opposed to industry and government?

Yes and no. The novel element in the Triple Helix model is indeed the enhanced role of the university. Traditional innovation models and national systems privileged the role of the government and concepts like open innovation, as well as the role of the industry and private enterprises. So in our model the university’s role is at least as important. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the leading role – sometimes that is the case, but it can also be government in the leading role, or industry. So consequently we get three different versions of this model, depending on who plays the leading role. But once again I argue that the optimum model has relatively equal participation of each of the three. Of course, that often requires radical reconsidering of the universities’ roles, missions and social functions. And this is where we see the transition from a teaching university or a research university to an entrepreneurial university that encompasses all the previous elements but takes them to a new level and has slightly different goals.      



- But do you really think that innovations born in major corporate companies like Apple, Google or Oracle, for instance, are inferior to those that can come out of academia? Or maybe those are different types of innovations?

Of course they aren’t inferior. But indeed, they are a slightly different type of innovations, each of them has its own nuances. The greatest historical example of a company-sponsored source of innovation was Bell Laboratories from the AT&T company that now virtually disappeared, because it was a quasi-government-sponsored monopoly, and so they had a secure source of income with a public mission to put a lot of it into R&D. Their problem, however, was that they were always limited, their innovations always had to have something to do with improving the telephone or something similar. It is natural that enterprises are mostly concerned about turning innovative ideas into actual products, which is why a large number of fresh and original ideas remain unrealized.

Universities, on the other hand, don’t have such limitations, they have a certain creative freedom. On the other hand, we have companies with fairly wide-ranging goals – take Google, for instance. Recently it transformed itself into Alphabet, which exemplifies their multiple interests. But look: Google operates in a quasi academic format, this company has already taken some of the traditional functions of universities. For instance, Google employees usually have free time during week days to do research. So, when companies take some roles of universities, universities take some roles of firms, etc. – this sort of flexibility and interchangeability is one of the main features of the Triple Helix.

That aside, in universities the problem is that the traditional task of professors and teachers is to develop, collect and transmit knowledge. But these days many universities in the USA, as well as the rest of the world acquire the qualities of a small business firm – university research groups raise funds to keep their projects going and recruit students and research fellows. I call such groups ‘quasi-firms’: because people who work in them often proceed to open small innovational firms and they experience no difficulty in moving from academic research to business activities. I talked to many people who did that, and they would say to me: “This doesn’t feel that much different from what I was doing at the university, only there I was looking for potential research sponsors, and now I’m looking for venture capitals, and I’m recruiting my former students to come to work in the firm”.   

- It is clear that in order for the triple helix model to work, roles of each of the three elements must change considerably: the university, the industry and the government must take some necessary changes. What kind of changes must those be, and how should these institutions organize their work within the Triple Helix model?

Well, a lot depends, of course, on the local situation – on what they’re already doing before the Triple Helix came about. However, the most important thing is retargeting to innovational work and creating conditions under which new ideas can arise. Without the support of new ideas the Triple Helix is impossible – and not only ideas in sciences and technology but in a broader sense as well. You can have economic development coming out of the universities from arts departments – I recently studied a historical case at a small teaching college in Oregon, where they organized a Shakespeare festival during the Great Depression. And over the years that grew into a number of theatre festivals, arts festivals and exhibitions, and, surrounding them, hotels, restaurants and the entire infrastructure that became the economic mainstay of Ashland, Oregon, which now calls itself ‘the humanities town’. And there’s an ongoing symbiotic relationship between the government, the college supporting the growth of the theatre school to national distinction and the town administration. So, the understanding of the concept of innovation must be broadened.       

- In your lectures you frequently mention your belief in the enhanced role of the universities, which is based on the fact that they have what private enterprises or government don’t have – students. What do you base your belief in younger generations on, and what qualities must students possess to become the basis for future entrepreneurial universities?

It’s not only the qualities they possess but the fact that there are always new students coming to the university as the old ones graduate. And that is the unique advantage of universities, their special feature inevitable by the very nature of a university – the self-renewing, the fact that there is always “fresh blood”. And that’s very important. As for the qualities, of course there are people who are capable of being entrepreneurs – there will always be some people who have that tendency, but it’s not born, it’s created, and it can be helped by the way the university trains people! So, as well as having lectures and seminars, universities also have to have project-oriented courses where groups of students come together from different disciplines to solve certain research problems, look for solutions. And of course, they need to have resources to create prototypes of ideas and projects.

I recently visited a small college in Dubai, a branch of New York University, where they set up a freshman course in mechanical engineering. Students were divided into groups to work on problems and try to find creative solutions to them across disciplines, with 24/7 labs dedicated to the course with equipment to produce prototypes. And what is interesting there is that the students made it into not just an engineering course, but into a course for students of humanities and social sciences as well. Through word-of-mouth it became known that this was an exciting course not to be missed, so the students of arts and social sciences would also register for the course as engineering students, in order to get access to this!

- There is no doubt that students can learn a lot from such a course where they explore things as scientists and developers. But did this project actually yield any research results, or any innovations coming from it?      

Can you believe it – the results exceeded all expectations. In fact, during my talk there three of the students asked if they could have a special meeting with me. They wanted to meet me for advice. As it turned out, they had developed a project and entered it into a contest in Dubai for the most innovative technology. And they had won the contest – and these are freshmen students! The win came with a high financial award – $100 000, and they wanted to know if they could secure the money or if they have to turn it over to the university. And I advised them to keep it, because they were paying tuition fees anyway, but the project was their intellectual property. People from the Stanford office also sometimes ask for my advice on this question, because now undergraduates are being very creative, coming up with projects that are potentially worth a lot, and so the universities are interested in how they can tap into this. But according to the law it is only possible with staff members or Ph.D. students on the grounds that they are there on fellowships, being paid for. But the undergraduate students pay tuition, so they keep the rights to their intellectual property.        

Returning to your question: yes, projects such as that one often yield actual research results, which is why I think that in the future universities should move in this direction. And this is the way that university metrics should work: they should bring this kind of even one-off experiments to broader attention. Such, for instance, is the goal of an entrepreneurial university metrics project that I’ve helped to create with colleagues from other countries. In Russia this project is led by Alexander Bikkulov from ITMO University in St. Petersburg. When I offered him to participate in the project, I don’t think he took me too seriously at first, but later we met in June of 2015 in Leiden, Holland, where the project was kicked off with six country teams including Russia, China, Finland, Brazil, Holland and USA.


- You mentioned Ashland, Oregon, where an arts project became the economic basis of a whole town. But still, innovations in this field, as well as, for instance, in fundamental sciences are not always immediately applicable in practice. How effective is applying the Triple Helix in those cases, and are there differences from applying it to situations with technological innovations?

Of course there are differences. But, for instance, mathematicians in TUSUR University in Tomsk are applying fundamental mathematics to develop algorithms in order to improve technical processes in existing industries. And that is the basis of firms being spun off at TUSUR, so mathematical expertise of the highest sort is relevant. The same is in biotechnology: it’s very hard to tell the difference between fundamental research in molecular biology and innovational projects in biotechnology. So much so that in Brazil, by the way, the innovation law of 2004 allows research groups at universities to operate as firms simultaneously, in the same space, therefore not making it necessary to establish a second laboratory at a great expense outside of the university. Again, this is the innovation in Brazil that the rest of the world can learn from.

- And what about arts, social sciences and humanities?

Similar to the aforementioned historical example with the Shakespeare festival, the same can be done nowadays as well. But there are also the latest avant-garde experiments – some of them can be entrepreneurial and artistic events at the same time, if you approach them from a certain angle. I taught for many years at an arts-based university – they didn’t know the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ or ‘incubator’, but if you look at the theatre school or the dance school there, they are operating on an incubator model. They take in students and organize them into dance groups and theatre groups. Then, after 4 years these students graduate, and some of them create their own dance schools and theatre projects. So the Triple Helix is absolutely applicable to arts and humanities as well, and there are examples of it being done everywhere.

- Are there limitations for the Triple Helix at all? For instance, can it be developed under the conditions of state-controlled economy?

Of course, the more authoritarian the conditions are in nature, the less possibilities you have for any input from below. Although: never say impossible. I recently read the biography of Dr. Ludwik Fleck, a medical researcher who worked on developing vaccines in the 1930s – 40s. And he was put with his research group in Auschwitz by the Nazis, and under those conditions they were innovating, moving their research forward and very carefully giving out the bad lots of vaccines to the Germans and the good lots they were smuggling into the Jewish ghettos. So even under the most difficult conditions something is possible. But of course, the ideal conditions for the Triple Helix would be having a free society with the initiative being not only allowed but encouraged and with lots of resources available.

- As I understood, the Triple Helix model can come about naturally (which is what helped you to discover it). But now, thanks to your research, it is possible to create it on purpose. Can you give us the best examples of natural and purposeful creation of triple helices?

The thing is, I don’t see much of a difference between what you call “natural” and “purposeful” creation, because it’s all purposeful. You see, when we say ‘naturally’, we must understand that these people who were behind that were the leaders of universities, industries and government, and they thought about these problems for years! Even before I came up with my research and before there was the concept of the Triple Helix, it emerged in practice because these people had thought about these issues and took certain steps to solve them. Nowadays in Brazil, for example, they imported the incubator model from the States and introduced it into universities. But they very soon found that the incubator model in the States was to help make hi-tech firms from academic research to support professors and then students doing that. In Brazil they soon ran out of advanced research to make into firms. But then their innovation was that they realized the true nature of the incubators, which is not just a sting to help create hi-tech firms, it’s a method of teaching a group of people to work together as an organization. And once you understand that, you can apply this model not just to the creation of hi-tech firms, but of mid-tech firms or low-tech firms as well. A great example is the interaction between the Campaign Against Hunger, an NGO who academics were members of, and a technological incubator of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro – they thought about how they could put their resources together to solve this problem of unemployment, and they came up with an idea of the popular cooperative incubator to train poor people from the favelas to organize cooperatives to create their own jobs. This project was started and very soon recognized to be successful and useful. So then the third element of the Triple Helix – the government – entered the scene, and Brazil created a program to widespread this innovation across the country. And when I first went to Brazil in the late 1980s, in Rio de Janeiro at that time there were about eight incubators, while in New York there were only about two or three! So, it was a puzzle to me: I couldn’t understand how that was possible. Why were there so many incubators in a supposedly developing country, especially compared to such a huge world center as New York? But then I realized that in New York the incubators were only seen in a limited way to produce a few hi-tech firms from those universities that then were interested, whereas in Rio they were seen in a much broader sense. And I was surprised even more when when I was invited to a graduation ceremony at a university in Rio de Janeiro, but that was a graduation not of individuals from the University but of firms from the University’s incubator, with each of them doing a presentation of what they had accomplished in the two or three years. In the United States the idea of a graduation ceremony for an incubator seems weird, but in Brazil they’ve recognized explicitly that the incubator was a teaching part of the university, and it adapted traditional university methods of recognizing graduation and success. 



- If we were to create the triple helix model at a given place in Russia, for instance, what would we need to do for that?

Well, the basic condition is – at minimum allowing, at best encouraging universities to move in this direction. Speaking of Russia, important steps have already been made: there is the Association of Russian Entrepreneurial Universities: it includes five universities that are attempting to move in this direction, including ITMO (St. Petersburg) and Moscow State University (Economics Department). However, the movement was started in TUSUR in Tomsk, a small specialized university. This University initially came out of a missile development research center and was basically funded by the Ministry of Defense. But when the military funding went down, creative individuals in the University put forward the idea of moving in an entrepreneurial direction, creating a science park and starting the innovational development processes. And they had heard about the Triple Helix model, and they started using it to conceptualize themselves as an entrepreneurial university, and raised considerable funds, in Moscow, in order to move the university in this direction. In fact, they even took responsibility to fund the Triple Helix Association Journal! But last year it all came to an end, because the University went back to its original direction, with funds for military research now newly available on a large scale. So, alas, this whole direction has come to a halt, and the funding of the Journal from TUSUR has come to a halt as well, but the people who were interested in the entrepreneurial direction have moved to other universities, the ones supported by the government as part of the “5-100” program – mainly to Tomsk State University and ITMO. And they are now gold members of the Triple Helix Association. So, ups and downs, but the movement continues.

And I have been to Tomsk twice: in 2010 and 2014. During my second visit we had the THA international conference there, but during my first I had a chance to visit the incubator and the science park, to talk to the people who organized these firms and research groups. A lot of them were doing algorithmic expertise, which is very well-developed in Russia, and that’s the competitive advantage in your country. But can actually be lost if the polytechnic universities aren’t revived with the new generation of teachers. It is now dependant on an old generation, which is largely due to the loss of prestige of the academic profession. Russia has great traditions of higher education, so it’s important to revive the attractiveness of the academic sphere for the young talented people.

In the Soviet era you also had a system to find out who were the most talented children in every area – music, science, sports – and to bring them to schools and to train them to the highest level. That is brilliant! I always bring this example up in the States when they ask me about how to get the best of all the human talent, to find the young talented people. And this model was developed in the Soviet era, and it needs to be retrieved and brought back, and widespread and not lost.

Recently I was in the Arts Library at Stanford, and on the new bookshelf I saw this book that attracted my attention, called ‘Soviet Bus Stops’. Yes, you heard me right. The book’s author is an artist who made a bicycle trip around Russia taking pictures of bus stops. He was fascinated and impressed by their structures because they were very different and fanciful – some made by artists, some large, some small, but his question was “How did this arise out of the Soviet system, which was mostly uniform? And in the Brezhnev era, too, which was supposed to be dull!” And from reading this book I kept wondering if there weren’t other kinds of innovation going on in science or other areas that could have come out in small ways. And that’s the important thing – it’s not building large buildings that would co-locate firms, university groups and science parks. That’s not the point – the point is to create conditions under which bottom-up ideas can be flourished and taken forward. The important thing is to open up the existing systems and have them interact with each other. Maybe it’s a good idea to move small research institutes into the universities as a way of making it happen, like they did in Budapest. Then research groups will get fresh blood and new ideas from students coming through, while universities, on the other hand, will be enriched by research experts.    

- What are the Triple Helix association’s plans for the future? What are you doing at the moment?

I already mentioned the global entrepreneurial university metrics initiative, which is one project of the Association, and Russia is participating in the leadership at ITMO, especially Alexander Bikkulov, who is the project manager of the international project. But more specifically, our international conference is coming up, 25th to 27th of September this year, in Heidelberg, Germany. The information about it is now on the website and the abstract submission system is now open. All of the papers will be published in the Triple Helix Association Journal, and the abstracts are translated into all the UN languages, including Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, as well as Portuguese (because we always have a lot of members from Brazil). Beside the Journal, we also have a magazine, for shorter, more informal articles, which will be interesting for non-specialist audiences as well.     

And the theme of the conference is the multiple interacting crises that we face and ways of overcoming these crises, as well as the role that innovation can play in addressing epidemiological, financial, political, social crises. So the readers of eRazvitie.org should feel they are all personally invited to join both the meeting and the Association! (smiles)

- Will the upcoming conference become a special event for the Triple Helix association, because this year it is the 20th anniversary since the first ever Triple Helix conference? Are there any special events planned?

That’s actually a good idea, thanks! Actually the initial idea was to have a plenary session with speakers representing the leadership of the previous conferences. But maybe we could think of some other interesting things like that as well to commemorate the 1996 conference.


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