Enhancing the soft power of innovation agencies in Europe

Innovation agencies are often thought of as funding bodies, supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and growth primarily through the provision of grants or other types of financial support. Yet in recent years, many have taken on a much wider set of responsibilities, offering a range of advisory and support services and frequently playing a role in driving forward ambitious societal missions or international collaborations.

As well as providing ‘hard’ support in the form of funding, innovation agencies can also deploy significant ‘soft power’ – including knowledge about how to develop innovative ideas and businesses that can be shared with innovators, wide networks that enable them to broker useful connections and partnerships, and training and skills development. Yet much less is known about the role and impact of this kind of power, and the non-financial forms of support that innovation agencies offer.

During 2018-19, collaborative research carried out by Nesta and Portugal’s national innovation agency (ANI) for the TAFTIE network of European innovation agencies explored this issue through a survey of 24 innovation agencies across Europe. Alongside case studies and analysis of the advisory and support services provided by these agencies, it offers an up-to-date picture of their organisational profiles, and an initial assessment of the skills and capabilities they currently hold and would like to develop in the future.

Some of the key findings of this research include:

  • The ‘perimeter of action’ for innovation agencies is growing and changing in scope. This has implications for the kinds of services they should offer in relation to other actors in the innovation ecosystem at the national and European level, and highlights the need for more rigorous assessment of the value of different types of advisory and support services.
  • There is a general shift towards more ‘innovator-centric models of support. There is a recognition of the need for innovation support to be ‘more than money’. Many agencies are starting to move from a 'programme' or ‘project-centric’ approach towards an 'innovator-centric' model that involves more bespoke and holistic support for innovators. The resources and capabilities required for this kind of approach differ from traditional forms of programme management, which can be challenging for innovation agencies to develop.
  • New skills and capabilities are required to implement an innovator-centric model of support. While some innovation agencies are already diversifying the types of skills and backgrounds they recruit for, there remains a need to better understand and invest in developing the capabilities needed to deliver innovator-centric support programmes.

Read more and download the full research report.


Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Senior Policy Manager

Alex is a Senior Policy Manager in the Innovation Growth Lab (IGL).

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