Public funding of university and company-based R&D centres of excellence is widespread both in core and more peripheral regions. What is less well-known is whether these R&D centres can catalyse multi-directional, multi-actor and iterative innovation. Based on data from a real-time monitoring study, this article explores the development of 18 R&D centres’ external connections. University-based R&D centres establish more new connections than company-based centres and are more likely to be interacting with small or micro-firms. However, there is a general bias towards links with larger firms; micro, small and medium-sized enterprises also are less likely to be involved in collaborative R&D with research centres than other types of relationships. The results suggest the potential for R&D centres to act as a catalyst for open innovation but emphasise the need to ensure that the focus of the R&D being conducted is relevant to the needs of smaller firms.