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ISO CINO: The rise of the innovation role in higher ed

May 8, 2023 — Not to be confused with a chief information officer (CIO) or a chief technology officer (CTO), a chief innovation officer (CINO) is a designated role for someone responsible for managing the process of innovation in an organization. This role was unheard of a few decades ago, but now over 400,000 people on LinkedIn bear the title. And they’re appearing more and more often in higher education.

In Wellspring’s 2021 R&D and Innovation Agenda Report, the presence of a CINO in a company was one factor that strongly correlated with positive corporate performance—more than 50% of companies with a CINO experienced above-average or breakaway revenue growth. As more organizations see and experience the benefits of centralized innovation roles, they will continue to adopt these roles in their own institutions.

CINOs in academia

Universities may seek a centralized leader who can capitalize on innovation with an external focus, fueled by research partnerships, technology transfer, and university-related startups. This flavor of innovation acknowledges the university’s role as an economic anchor and resource for the greater community.

But universities also seek to facilitate a culture of innovation to stay in front of academic trends. A key facet of the role is the ability to encourage resiliency; with innovation comes change, and universities must adapt and accept changes quickly to succeed. During the pandemic, the move to rapidly shift learning online often fell to these leaders to operationalize. Broad-scale, responsive change is a challenge for any large, multi-faceted organization, so it’s understandable that institutions chose their innovation leaders to take charge of the task.

In universities, titles like the president or vice president for innovation are appearing more often. From creating partnerships with businesses and government to fostering an entrepreneurial and innovative culture within the university, these chief innovators lead all things innovation for their institutions.

One recurring issue is where these CINOs fall within the university’s org chart – specifically, are they cabinet level? Do they report to the office of research or at the same level? At the cabinet level, they possess direct access to the president. Other organizational charts put the CINO under the chief research officer, focusing activities within that sphere. Where universities place the CINO depends both on the priorities of the institution and the role it envisions for its CINO in its overall strategy. Regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy, CINOs still are expected to drive innovation and commercialization at their institutions.

New role for a new world

Riding the innovation wave are new markets, new products, and new opportunities for institutions to capitalize. Universities are growing as entrepreneurial enterprises with the potential for economic impact as they incubate and launch startups. With that growth comes a need for leaders who can straddle the academic and entrepreneurial worlds.

A 2018 report cites more than 200 colleges and universities with CINOs or comparable titles, and another 200 schools have online learning roles often connected to academic innovation efforts. An example from UIDP membership includes Arizona State University, now seeking a vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation. These higher education roles are similar to their industry counterparts and are charged with ensuring that universities stay competitive in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why it matters

CINOs can play a role in university-industry partnerships, calling attention to the importance of these relationships to the university’s economic development impact.  Depending on the institution, CINOs can add prominence and bring attention to the role of external engagement.

Overall, creating high-ranking roles focused on innovation illustrates the drive to prioritize innovation and discovery at universities and companies alike. While time will tell whether these new roles will persist, in the short term, they indicate an institutional commitment to strengthen innovation capabilities.

We want to hear from you. Does your institution have a CINO or comparable role? What do you think about the rise in these innovation-focused roles in higher education? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.