Q&A with Kimberly Gramm

New Director of the Innovation Hub at Research Park discusses the future of innovation at Texas Tech


photo of kimberly grammShe considers it the best job in the world.

For Kimberly Gramm, there is no greater honor than helping innovators as they start their journey to bring an idea to the marketplace. The new managing director for Texas Tech's Innovation Hub at Research Park says she loves to help. The payoff: watching an idea launch from the brain cells of creativity into the marketplace.

In many ways, Texas Tech University's Innovation Hub is a startup in itself. Tasked with the job of building clients and supporters, Gramm said she left the beaches of South Florida to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a Big XII university's entrepreneur program from the ground, up.

We sat down with Gramm to ask her what it's like to start up an organization tasked with starting start-ups.

Eureka: This building seems to be a hive of activity, and it's almost 5 o'clock on a Thursday. Is it always like this?

Gramm: Now that school is back in session, yes. The hive of activity that happens here at the HUB is really exciting! We have students in our BaseCamp "cool" co-working area where they create prototypes of their ideas with our 3-D printers. We have six or seven companies that are our tenants. For example, one is solving problems with seed technology trying to create high-volume crops that need less water. The list of interesting and innovative work like that goes on and on. So, we're really about facilitating creative collision at our facility. When you bring smart students, faculty and inventors here, ideas manifest in products that will solve tomorrow's problems.

Eureka: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved promoting entrepreneurship in higher education.

Gramm: I started at Florida Atlantic University 8 or 9 years ago. I came in as director of entrepreneurship, a Center within one of the largest business schools in the country. Ran successful entrepreneurial programs, built a strategy, became an assistant dean. The president came to me one day and said "I really love what you are doing in entrepreneurship within the business school. How can we do that at the university level? I think entrepreneurs and innovators can be found anywhere on campus. You think we could do something like that? So we sat down, I wrote a white paper that was funded by the state of Florida to support an accelerator program that funded startups. We began to launch a university startup approximately 2 or 3 years ago. The startups would receive $25,000, mentoring and significant support in understanding what they needed to do so they could get follow up funding.

Eureka: What brought you to Texas Tech?

Gramm: So what brought me to TTU, I thought goodness I'd never leave South Florida. It's a beautiful place. But on occasion in everyone's life an amazing opportunity presents itself. Very often you never find all of the things you want in one place. When I started my interview process here, I realized the leadership, the business community, the faculty staff and students all wanted entrepreneurship and innovation as a pillar of what we do here at Texas Tech University. It's palpable when people talk about "their" university and they're very passionate about seeing the development of innovative ideas into startup companies. The vision the leadership has to expand and to be the best at Tech is something I wanted to be a part of. It's a great opportunity for me professionally to build something and leave a legacy for this community that continues to support growth and prosperity.

Eureka: What do you think sets Texas Tech apart from other universities when it comes to entrepreneurship?

Gramm: I think what sets TTU apart from other universities is that they really do have a passion for wanting to understand the entrepreneurship space, support it, develop and nurture it, and to become the university of tomorrow through stakeholder collaboration. Leadership that challenges the status quo in education is important, what we used to do was great, asking what are we going to do to evolve education and research moving forward and putting action and real metrics behind it is rare. I saw that vision, leadership, and community cooperation here, I think that makes us really special.

Eureka: What are your plans for the Innovation Hub, and how is this facility important in furthering Texas Tech's growth in entrepreneurship?

Gramm: We have a 40,000-sqare-foot facility with flexible office space and state of the art laboratories to launch tech startups. This facility to house programs to support startups is a shining star in our community and puts us ahead of the game with other universities. My plan is to build out programmatic support that not only helps our faculty, students and entrepreneurs in this community to understand the basics of how to take an idea that might have started on the bench in a lab to the marketplace. That's everything from understanding what customer discovery looks like to determine if there's a market for the creation of whatever idea you have that's solving a big problem, developing a revenue model, funding ideas and prototypes, and providing the space for these things to really develop, grow and scale.

Eureka: What would you say the challenges are in growing entrepreneurship on campus, and how do you see us overcoming those challenges?

Gramm: Like any startup, it has challenges and obstacles. We are a startup in a university environment, for many it seems counterintuitive. There are complexities to universities, such as how universities are funded, and what you are able to do with the sources of funds. Guidelines, rules and policies are part of the normal course of business. The Hub is really a TTU's startup for it to succeed it has to mimic the different needs and requirements of the startup world. It needs to be an organic "safe" learning environment that looks, feels and behaves like other startup spaces around the country. I like to think of challenges more as opportunities. As we look down the path of how a startup actually succeeds, I think, , one of our biggest challenges is awareness and understanding of why TTU is championing this effort. Why are we doing this, what does that mean, and how does that help us to be a first-class university and add value to the TTU degree. It really does start with our leaders, our students and faculty representing innovation. Great ideas solving big problems is what this really is all about. Whether you're solving a problem for clean water that might have a social impact, or you're solving some big cloud computing algorithm problem for efficiencies, it's all about innovation and creativity. Universities are where new knowledge is discovered, inventors create, students experience and learn and challenge the possibilities. A startup really is simply an extension of the university. A percentage of the inventions and new discoveries become available to the broader public through licensing, commercialization, a spin-out, or a start-up. My job is de-risking the understanding of what it means to have this resource so TTU helps make it easier for entrepreneurs to be successful, it is the American Dream.

Eureka: Talk a little bit about partnerships from local, regional and beyond and how they will help in accomplishing your goals.

Gramm: Partnership is really important to a startup. I look at partnership in a number of different capacities. There are your local partners, which can be your chambers of commerce your economic development organizations. There are your federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health, and there are corporate partners. Important partners like Lubbock Economic Development Alliance are helping to fund some of our programmatic efforts. Their mission is to support economic development in the community. In doing so, they are actively funding programs at TTU. The National Science Foundation began a group called I-Corps a few years ago, it essentially gives researchers the ability to move their research from the bench into the marketplace. They created a rigorous framework for faculty who act as principal investigators who will have an industry or business mentor and an entrepreneurial lead who may be a post doc student acting as CEO. The team receives funding and learns intensive customer discovery and business model canvasing coaching to determine if the technology is worthy of building a company. All of these partners have very significant roles in helping us to be successful. Developing deep relationships with these organizations, understanding how we can help them meet their goals and objectives and aligning resources helps us to be more impactful together.

Eureka: What is happening in higher education regarding entrepreneurship and why?

Gramm: Entrepreneurship in higher education is a little bit of a hot potato. I say that because the academic unit where entrepreneurship is taught is typically a business school, the "home" of entrepreneurial education. However, you will find university leadership, engineering schools, and other colleges on a university campus see their students and faculty are innovative and entrepreneurial as well. The challenge becomes how you manage a multidisciplinary initiative where students experience entrepreneurship and innovation. Universities around the country are trying to figure out the best approach. In my mind, TTU is in a really good place with how we think of entrepreneurship and innovation at Tech, there is continued work to do but we are headed in the right direction. Part of my what I consider my role is to help our faculty understand how they can successfully participate in the Hub activities. Whether or not they're doing research that can become commercialized, they can become ambassadors for entrepreneurship or participate in their own way. Whether they're teaching art classes, communications classes, science, engineering -- you name it – there are ways to innovate, solve problems, and then share our resources at the Hub with students. In addition, commercialization platforms are another big topic. At TTU we have an Office of Commercialization (ORC) where intellectual property is managed. The Hub and ORC are working closely to develop a seamless transition for faculty and students who develop patents and think they may want to consider the start-up world.