Purpose The purpose of this paper is a micro-level examination of the role and function of cooperative research centers (CRCs) in entrepreneurial universities from a principal investigator (PI) perspective. Design/methodology/approach This study uses a qualitative research design and is based on 38 semi-structured interviews with PIs who are publicly funded at the Centre for Research in Medical Devices (CuRAM) based in Ireland. CuRAM has a multiple mission focus of supporting scientific excellence, industry engagement, educational and public engagement that supports the Irish medical device sector. Findings The findings reveal that CRCs' role and function at the micro level constitute a necessary and functional organization architecture that supports PIs who are required to meet multiple scientific, commercialization, educational and public engagement objectives. Specifically, from the micro-level PI perspective, the role and function of CRCs focus on research quality enhancement, brokerage, networks and collaborations, addressing research impact and resource enhancement and appropriation. Practical implications - This research emphasizes the importance and necessity for the creation of CRCs as part of the entrepreneurial architecture of entrepreneurial universities that provides the necessary appropriate local environmental conditions and enhanced supports to enable micro-level actors to fulfill multiple mission objectives with respect to research excellence, industry, educational and public engagement and impact. Originality/value This study contributes to the limited literature on new institutional configurations that support entrepreneurship and addresses recent calls for further research. In taking a micro-level focus, the authors identify the role and function of CRCs from a PI perspective in an entrepreneurial university setting.