Innovation intermediaries: a computational analysis of the literature

Annalisa Caloffi, Ana Colovic, Valentina Rizzoli and Federica Rossi

The growing need to bring together different organisations in the context of complex innovation processes has intensified the debate around innovation intermediaries – that is, organisations that support firm-level and collaborative innovation. However, as the literature on intermediaries has expanded, our understanding of what innovation intermediaries do and of their characteristics has become hazier. In fact, the literature has approached intermediaries from a variety of perspectives, using various terms and focusing on different types of organisations. This heterogeneity makes it difficult to discern the key intermediary types and their most important functions. Additionally, as intermediaries are increasingly ‘in demand’, they have become more numerous and more diverse, sometimes specialising in specific activities or sectors, and new types of intermediaries have emerged in response to emerging needs.

The present study aims to advance our understanding of which organisations engage in innovation intermediation activities, how they differ, and how they relate to each other. We do so by comprehensively mining the literature on innovation intermediaries that has been produced in the last four decades (from 1976 to 2019), in order to identify the key ‘types’ of intermediaries as they emerge from the literature, and the key organisational characteristics, functions and activities of each type. We also analyse the extent to which the different ‘types’ are underpinned by separate or overlapping theoretical approaches and sub-fields of literature.

The research field has grown steadily, especially from 2010 on, from few articles per year until the beginning of the 2000s to 166 articles in 2019. The incidence of the literature on innovation intermediaries on the total number of articles published in Scopus has also grown significantly over time. The variety of journals has also gradually expanded: until 2009 articles on intermediaries were published in 192 journals, while from 2010 onwards the number of journals has increased to 447.

Top 10 journals
Technovation (41)
Research Policy (36)
International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management (33)
Journal of Technology Transfer (30)
International Journal of Innovation Management (27)
Technology Analysis and Strategic Management (27)
International Journal of Technology  Management (26)
Technological Forecasting and Social Change (26)
Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension (24)
European Planning Studies (21)
Top 10 journals hosting articles about innovation intermediaries, by number of articles – source: Caloffi et al. (2023)

Percentage of innovation intermediaries-themed articles on the total number of articles published in Scopus – source: Caloffi et al. (2023)

By means of a combination of text mining and bibliometric techniques, complemented by qualitative content analysis, we identified and characterised seven different clusters representing different streams of innovation intermediaries’ literature. Six of these refer to distinct types of intermediaries, performing specific functions and often involving specific types of organisations: from university incubators, to intermediaries in innovation systems and clusters, KIBS, and, more recently, open innovation intermediaries and transition intermediaries. The content analysis of the abstracts of articles in these clusters shows that these intermediaries have different organisational characteristics and functions.

 Average number of authors per articleAverage number of citations per articleInterdiscipl. Index (%)Average number of articles per journalTop three journals by number of published articlesPapers’ natureMain theoretical approaches
University incubators2.321.720.51.7J. Tech. Transf.; Int. J. Entrep. Innov. Manag.; TechnovationMostly empirical – qualitative researchInnovative entrepreneurship
Innovation system intermediaries2. J. of Entrep. Innov. Manag.; Ind. High. Educ.; TechnovationMostly empirical – qualitative researchTriple Helix, learning region, national innovation system, regional innovation system
Open innovation intermediaries2. J. Innov. Manag.; Technol Forecast Soc. Change; Technol. Anal. Strateg. ManagMostly empirical –qualitative & quantitative researchOpen innovation
Transition intermediaries2.522.632.41.2Res. Policy; J. Clean. Prod.; Energy Res. Soc. Sci.Conceptual & empirical (qualitative research)Sustainable transitions, many others
KIBS2.422.215.41.9Serv. Ind. J.; Int. J. Serv. Technol. Manag.; Serv. Bus.Mostly empirical –qualitative & quantitative researchMany
Cluster intermediaries2.529.713.41.8J. Technol. Transf.; Technovation; Int. J. Innov. Manag.Mostly empirical – qualitative researchInnovation cluster, regional innovation system
Intermediaries performance2.624.318.51.6J. Knowl. Manag.; J. Prod. Innov. Manag.; Res. PolicyEmpirical –qualitative & quantitative researchMany
Some information on the clusters – source: Caloffi et al. (2023)

The analysis of the underpinning theoretical approaches and the bibliographic coupling indicates that the literature on open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003; Chesbrough et al., 2006), together with some landmark works on innovation, is used across the board to analyse all these types of intermediaries. Taking into account these common roots, it seems reasonable to consider the field of literature on innovation intermediaries as a single field, underpinned by common references to seminal papers on innovation theory, innovation systems and open innovation; however, within this field, there are some distinct strands of literature, referring to different types of innovation intermediaries characterised by different functions, some of which use specific theoretical approaches within the broader innovation studies field (such as innovative entrepreneurship, national or regional innovation systems, learning regions, innovation clusters, Triple Helix). These strands of literature have gathered momentum in different periods (e.g. ‘university incubators’ emerged in the 1990s; ‘innovation system intermediaries’, ‘KIBS’ and ‘cluster intermediaries’ developed in the 2000s; open innovation intermediaries and intermediaries’ performance emerged after 2010). While they are all continuing to the present day, interest in some of these has slowed down. At the same time, the language is becoming more homogeneous, suggesting that some of the clusters may disappear and others may merge in the future.

The analysis allows us to identify research gaps, which can provide some suggestions for further research.

First, the clustering exercise has shown how research streams cluster into two main groups before splitting into seven clusters: literature on university incubators, innovation system intermediaries, open innovation intermediaries and transition intermediaries adopts a systemic perspective, trying to understand how intermediaries affect the systems they operate in; while literature on KIBS , cluster intermediaries and intermediaries’ performance tends to take the perspective of the organisations, analysing how they operate. Therefore, there is potential for greater focus on individual organisations in the former four strands, with more research needed on how these intermediaries operate, and on their challenges and success factors; in parallel, for organisations in the latter three strands, there is scope for greater attention to the effect of these intermediaries’ activities on the contexts in which they operate.

Second, time trend analysis shows that, while the number of articles in all clusters has increased over time, relative interest in innovation system intermediaries and university incubators (and to a lesser extent KIBS and cluster intermediaries) appears to have decreased. Here there might be scope for further analyses aimed at understanding how these intermediaries are evolving and whether they are still meaningful.

Finally, so far limited attention has been dedicated to the effects of digitalisation on intermediaries’ activities, including the possibility of automation of some of these activities and their effects on intermediaries’ prospects and viability – as well as on the emergence of new types of intermediaries in this area. More research on intermediaries and digitalisation would therefore be needed to shed light on these and other issues.

To read the full study:

Caloffi, A., Colovic, A. , Rizzoli, V. and F. Rossi (2023) Innovation intermediaries’ types and functions: a computational analysis of the literature, Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

The full article is available here.

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