The aim of this article is to provide a comprehensive overview of the innovation ecosystem, which remains a fragmented concept, and to analyse its role in the economic development of states. The objective is achieved by first, drawing on the existing literature and theoretical framework that concerns innovation ecosystems, and by subsequently analysing the nexus between these entities and the economic development of states. The main contribution this paper makes to scholarly debate on innovation ecosystems is in attempting to link theoretical assessments with empirical observations. By drawing on the case study of the innovation landscape in Kraków, Poland, this paper offers a first-hand insight into the role of local actors and mechanisms determining the performance of the ecosystem based on primary research. As such, the study attempts to review specific stages of innovation development and the unique role of start-ups and SMEs within the ecosystem. By crossing through historical, economic and social contexts, the study embarks on a multidisciplinary as well as “causes-of-effects” approach. The different roots of the Polish innovation ecosystem are discussed, yet not failing to address the future prospects for innovation in the country. Finally, the study attempts to structure Poland’s start-up experience as a guide by discerning the actors and mechanisms that drive a healthy ecosystem. In such a context, the Polish experience can be informative for CEE countries where start-up ecosystems exist at the nascent stage.