Traditionally, universities have focused on two missions: teaching and research. While the universities still fulfill these missions, a third mission has been added: university research must establish its direct value to society. However, a lingering question is how this third mission should be carried out. While the earliest models focused on the universities operating similarly to an R&D department in a private company – seeking to patent research inventions and then capitalising on intellectual property rights – the focus today is much more nuanced and incorporates both invention- and innovation-oriented activities. This article captures existing knowledge of universities’ third mission activities and identifies five different models of how universities seek to fulfil the third mission. These models are empirically investigated through two multi-level case studies based on insights from universities’ top management, innovation and/or technology transfer offices, and research units within the emerging drone technology area. The findings illustrate how the two universities seek to fulfil the third mission, based on the same starting point but following different models. Moreover, a sixth model is identified, namely the Ecosystem Model, where the universities engage more extensively and with greater responsibility in collaborative efforts with a range of public and private actors on addressing comprehensive industrial and societal challenges through technology development and market insights. In doing so, the university’s role becomes more active in advancing the development of an industry. This emerging way of fulfilling the third mission is discussed with respect to university management and the achievement of societal goals.