Non-profit Organizations as Developers and Drivers of Innovation: An Exploration of the Googly-eyed Garbage Gobbler
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Within the innovation systems literature, non-profit organizations (NPOs) are known contributors to the spread of novel products and services. However, while non-profits as intermediaries have been thoroughly explored, non-profits as innovation developers have received less attention and what distinguishes them from other entrepreneurial actors has not been addressed. Therefore, this research takes an exploratory route by looking into an influential actor within the environmental water clean-up technology sector, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore (WPB), to answer the following question: How was WPB able to drive innovation within the environmental water clean-up technological sector, and what can we learn about NPOs’ innovation system strengthening potential in general? By conducting documentation reviews and interviews, this research was able to determine how WPB contributed to the strengthening of innovation system functions in ways that other actors within the same system could not. This research found that WPB was able to drive the system by (1) filling gaps left by public and private actors, (2) utilizing advantages available to NPOs, (3) exploiting synergies from NPO collaboration with for-profit actors and (4) solving the trash problem by simultaneously pushing the TrashWheel technology and investing in other approaches to reduce the need for this type of technology. From this research, a broader understanding of non-profit potential within innovation systems and NPO roles are explored. NPOs interested in innovation, or those organizations that wish to collaborate with a NPO, can better understand details such as: the gap in capabilities and interest left by other types of entrepreneurial actors, the financial tools and trust that can give NPOs an advantage, the benefits of a symbiotic relationship with a for-profit actor and how to pursue multiple approaches for solving meta-level problems.