About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

Dating has been revolutionised by digital technologies, so much so that it is changing the nature of society potentially influencing levels of interracial marriage and even marital stability. Online brokers such as Tinder and Bumble allow singles (and sometimes not so singles) to identify potential partners nearby with shared interests who they like the look of.

Intermediaries can also help bring together expertise, knowledge, resources, problems and solutions to enhance innovation. In the same way that Sarah who likes skydiving might use a dating app to find fellow hobbyist Chris, Rubeela the entrepreneur can use equivalent tools for innovation to find Simon the biochemist for her medtech start up.

To see whether digital technologies and other factors will change innovation as much as they have dating, Nesta is now exploring the future of innovation brokerage. The initial research has identified four themes: searching, scanning, matching and enabling - all of which inevitably overlap.


A key challenge for many innovators is finding what they’re after amid the jumble of information available on the internet and elsewhere. Search engines like Google are fine for many everyday questions but are less useful for more specialised queries like finding niche funding schemes or those who might share unusual kit.

One group of brokers that help with searching direct users to tools that enable the process of innovation such as expertise, funding and equipment. This includes Konfer, which describes itself as “Google meets LinkedIn” for innovation brokerage, Harvard Catalyst Profiles, which creates searchable and interactive profiles for many medical staff at the university, and Washfunders, a hub for funding and information for those interested in water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).


Often innovators don’t really know exactly what they’re looking for but they do know it when they see it. This is where scanning comes in, which is distinct from searching as what is being sought is less clearly defined. Development funders have faced this difficulty as local organisations can often look very different from those with which they traditionally engage. One solution is innovation scouts who proactively explore local environments. Scouting has also been used elsewhere such as by oilfield services company Schlumberger, which has employed a dedicated manager to seek early stage technology across the globe.

Scanning relies somewhat on serendipity, which has often had an important role in innovation. The odds of success can be increased through changes in day to day behaviour, such as systematically contacting dormant or weak links in personal networks rather than falling back on well established relationships. Augmented reality could be an important tool for maximising the benefit of chance encounters. In a lecture at Microsoft, Greg Lindsay speculated about a killer app that would tell him how to capitalise on interactions with a stranger coming towards him when walking down the street.


A more proactive approach to brokerage than scanning or searching involves matching innovators. Examples of this that bring together problems with solutions include Innocentive, Deloitte Pixel and GE Genius Link, which use crowdsourcing and open innovation in various ways to broker fixes. The artificial intelligence tools currently being harnessed by companies such as Yewno and Benevolent AI to enhance scientific innovation might also have a role in matching by spotting opportunities for collaboration among innovators that might otherwise be missed by humans.

Of course, as Geoff Mulgan describes in a Nesta blog, connecting innovators and users of innovation is not always straightforward and the hurdles he identifies are the sort of issues that Nesta will investigate.


Once opportunities have been identified intermediaries can enable innovators to come together. Progress isn’t always about new digital technologies. The UK’s Lambert Toolkit provides model legal agreements to help academic institutions and industry partners carry out research together. The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation held a symposium on imaging to bring together scientists from seemingly unconnected medical, energy and aerospace sectors that are strengths in this region.

At the moment Nesta is particularly interested in how to encourage private companies to undertake social innovation as part collaborations like the Inclusive Economy Partnership. Here the challenge is less about finding who to work with and more about making it happen.

Next steps

Open innovation was published 15 years ago spurring the development of a huge global industry. Nesta has been at the forefront of thinking on this topic through initiatives such as the Innovation Growth Lab, incubating 100% Open, Start Up Europe and Challenge Prizes.

Subsequently enabling technologies, such as data analytics, and new business models have provided tools that we couldn't quite imagine back then, yet their full potential remains unrealised. To better understand these opportunities for innovation brokerage over the next few months Nesta will be conducting an horizon scan that will build on our previous related research in this area. This will also:

  • chart the recent history of innovation brokerage and open innovation
  • identify where and why past attempts to broker innovation have failed
  • investigate how digital technologies shape innovation brokerage both now and in the future

If you are involved in using new methods of innovation brokerage or can help answer these questions then do get in touch with [email protected]

If you are interested in discussing the Inclusive Economy Partnership please contact [email protected]


Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith

Head of Foresight Research, Discovery Hub

Laurie leads on strategic foresight for Nesta.

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