Start-up and Innovation Ecosystems: The Value of Testbeds

Unsurprisingly, academic research often lags behind market developments (Brown & Mawson, 2017). What if, to help us close this gap, we thought of practitioners and policymakers 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 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 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 relatively quickly.

Some of the best returns from research can come from helping farmers assess their ideas. Putting the farmer in the center of that agricultural research system is not new; the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has been conducting field labs for 30 years. These labs attract innovative farmers and early adopters of 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 for up to a year in as many as four workshops conducted on one of their farms.  A guide manages the process and keeps it on track. The team includes one or more researchers to advise experimental design and 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). A critical review and conceptualization of entrepreneurial ecosystems is looking inside the spiky bits. Small Business Economics, 49(1), 11–30.

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