In this paper we show how the triple helix model provides an organising regime within which participant firms can extend their capabilities for explorative innovation through funded collaborations with academia. In so doing, we adopt Felin et al.'s multi-level framework to examine the microfoundations of participant firms' capabilities for explorative innovation in university partnerships. In our qualitative case study of a set of research projects that comprise a national research programme, we decomposed the microfoundations of the processes, interactions and the structures that facilitated the extension of member firms' explorative innovation capabilities nurtured within each university-industry partnership. We explain the attitudinal and behavioural modifications of the firms' individuals involved in the research project collaborations with university partners that aggregated into firm-level capabilities. Ultimately, we show that using a microfoundational lens allows for a deeper understanding of how triple helix programmes can influence the capabilities of firms for explorative innovation.