International centres of excellence (ICE) in which foreign research organizations are attracted to developing and emerging countries via dedicated funding schemes to support technological catching-up and strengthening of innovation systems, can have benefits for both host countries and their international research partners through knowledge spill-overs and business opportunities. As analysis of the process of setting up such ICEs is limited, the contribution of this study is assessing the enactment of such innovation policies aimed at inducing cross-border collaboration for R&D and innovation. This is done by investigating stakeholders’ perceptions on the establishment and early functioning of Chile’s ICE programme. The principal finding is that setting up and operating an ICE requires absorptive capacity of different kinds: not only to embed research and innovations ensuing from an ICE in the host country innovation system, but also to build capacities for operationalizing cross-border collaboration in an ICE and dealing with the dual embeddedness of ICE in both the host country and the home countries of the foreign research organizations. The latter type of absorptive capacity needs to be built both in the research organizations involved, and in the funding agencies enacting the innovation policy instruments that induce ICEs. Dedicated brokers facilitating such cross-border collaboration by bridging institutional and cultural gaps and supporting learning between partners, could be useful in this regard.