Professional Development
Education / Innovation

‘Innovation is really about people’: John Knapp’s collaborative approach to Marquette’s new innovation project

The longtime higher ed leader wants Innovation Alley, the Marquette University-centered initiative that he now directs, to inspire reciprocal innovation and connection between the college and Milwaukee's business sector.

John Knapp, executive director of Innovation Alley. (Courtesy photo)

This article appears as part of This Week in Milwaukee Rising, a weekly newsletter from highlighting the innovators bringing a more just, equitable and dynamic Milwaukee economy. Subscribe here. The series is underwritten by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.

John Knapp believes everybody deserves the opportunity to succeed. It’s one of the reasons he followed a path into higher education. You might even say it’s in his blood.

Growing up, Knapp was guided by the teachings his minister father and educator mother instilled in him. In school, he said, academic success came easy and he never once questioned whether he would go on to college.

But, as he quickly realized, not everybody was so lucky.

“It was this easy thing, and I can’t tell you how much I grew and developed because of [higher education],” Knapp told “As I was in the field working more, and meeting more students, I came to acknowledge that my higher education experience was not your typical experience. I’m very passionate about the fact that everyone deserves an education that leaves them better off and with more opportunity.”

His passion led him to consider fueling that possibility through the power of innovation.

This month, Knapp was named the inaugural executive director of Innovation Alley, a new initiative aiming to connect and develop innovation leaders at and beyond its home at Marquette University. The program arose through a partnership between the university’s College of Business Administration and Opus College of Engineering. It is funded in part by donations from alumni Chuck and Karen Swoboda and the Fotsch Family Foundation.

Knapp served as the business college’s director of external relations before being tapped for the new role.

“John has demonstrated success at Marquette and beyond in driving new initiatives, experiential learning opportunities for students, and developing strong employer relations,” said Paul Jones, Marquette’s general counsel and vice president for university relations, in a press release. “What’s more, he has a great ability in breaking down silos, which is important to executing on the vision for Innovation Alley.”

Breaking down silos is a top priority for Knapp, who is focused on fostering a culture of innovation within the school, among students and with business leaders. He explained that the program grew from questioning if the classroom provided students learning experiences that reflected real-world industry.

Innovation Alley was initially supposed to serve as a literal bridge between the school’s business and engineering schools, via a physical facility with shared spaces to encourage cross-campus collaboration. Eventually, the idea evolved to focus on building programming instead.

“We’ve moved more into this conceptual space of designing the programming that’s ultimately going to foster these types of connections and collaborations,” Knapp said. “What we’re looking to do is connect with organizations that really want to think about how we can work together differently, and connect young talent and faculty to this ecosystem that’s evolving here.”

The initiative has already seen success with its pilot leadership program, Igniting Insights. The seven-week virtual professional development experience attracted a diverse group of “rising talent” who dove into a curriculum designed to help leaders embrace an innovation mindset.

“I think to understand the program, it’s important for us to kind of understand, you know, how we see innovation here at Marquette,” said Knapp. “And although technology and processes are important, and certainly can drive some of these things, at the end of the day, innovation is really about people. It’s people that innovate. You can have the best invention in the world, but if you can’t apply that invention to a problem to solve something and create value, it’s just an invention. It’s not innovation.”

That’s an important distinction, Knapp added, since most business environments are “highly managed” and more risk-averse. “Those aren’t the environments where innovation can thrive,” he said.

While Innovation Alley programming is still being designed, it already has some concepts underway. One, called M-Teams, assembles multidisciplinary student groups to develop solutions for corporate and community partners. Another is an expansion of the E-Lead program, a three-year innovation leadership program for undergraduate students.

Knapp said that Innovation Alley’s goal isn’t to restrict the program or limit it to a handful of ideas. Ultimately, he hopes the initiative creates the kind of valuable programming that fosters connectivity between the university, its talent and the tech and innovation ecosystem.

“We want to let this grow naturally and to create value for our region,” Knapp said. “I think when you do something because you genuinely are passionate about it, and you care about it, it will create opportunity for you, so I’m very humbled to be in this role.”

Watch the full conversation with John Knapp:

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