In June this year, Kimberly Gramm became the inaugural chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer at Tulane University, which she joined after more than six years at Texas Tech University.

Her mission couldn’t be more ambitious: charged with driving economic development in the Greater New Orleans region, she will be leading the brand new Tulane Innovation Institute that itself will revitalise a gigantic, defunct hospital that’s been shut since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Gramm, who’s currently working on her PhD dissertation looking at innovation infrastructure, tells us about her vision for Tulane — a university with historic strengths in the medical sciences — and why raising a venture fund as a university really isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

She also discusses the need to continually drive diversity even at an institution that already has high rates of female and BIPOC students, ponders what the characteristics of a successful founder are and reveals her magic wand wish.


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Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Kimberly, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you so much. It is truly an honour to be here to talk with you and your podcasters today. I am excited.

I am very glad you could join us. To start with, can you give me an overview of innovation at Tulane, perhaps with some headline figures?

Yes, absolutely. So, I am new to Tulane. I have been here on the ground for five or six weeks, and as you can imagine, I am exploring the depths of innovation and research and trying to understand what we do here as a university really well. But I will give you some high-level information to help your listeners understand a little bit more about Tulane. We are an R1 AAU University. We are approximately $200 million in research expenditures annually, and that is growing. We are the only AAU school in the Gulf South, and so that makes us a bit unique.

We have one of the seven national funded primate research centres, which allows us to build on our history for infectious disease. We have pivoted during Covid, and as some other universities have developed technologies and a forward of approach for Covid testing because of our unique facilities and infrastructure that we have here. We have about 14,500 students, 8,500 of which are undergraduate and 6,000 are graduate students. We have predominantly females that attend Tulane University. So, around the same number, about 8,500 are female versus male.

We are the second oldest, arguably the second oldest public health school in the US after Johns Hopkins. We vied for first in terms of history. And most recently we have our new incoming 2026 undergraduate class. We are really pleased with these statistics, 30% of which were BIPOC, 20 valedictorians.

We had 43,000 applications and an 8.4% acceptance rate. So, I am happy to say that Tulane University is doing really well when it comes to enrolment and we seem to capture the attentions of undergraduate students far and wide to want to be here in New Orleans and experience their higher education here at Tulane University. So that is a summary of the high level of what Tulane University is all about.

Those are some impressive numbers. I did not realise just how many women and BIPOC students you would have. That is amazing. Are they in state or do you get applications from across the US?

Yes, we have international. I do not have that breakdown in front of me, but yes, we are very diverse in terms of getting undergraduate students across the nation. But we also have a fairly large international pool as well that attends Tulane University, and so it really adds to the richness and diversity that we have here.

Where does your own role fit into this structure and how broad is your remit?

That is a great question. This is the first of its kind here at Tulane University, and so I feel really blessed to be the person that was chosen to roll up their sleeves and build an organization in support of innovation for Tulane University, but also for the greater New Orleans community. The way that the structure for the position fits, I lead the Innovation Institute, but this reports to our president, Mike Fitts, and as well as our chief operating officer, our senior vice chief operating officer, Patrick Norton. So, together the three of us are really developing the strategies and that includes fundraising as well as rolling out larger strategy related to an innovation district here in New Orleans, which we can talk about later.

So, I think what interested me in this role was the vision that our president had for innovation and embedded innovation, not only in the curriculum, but also within the research that is being done here at Tulane University and really finding ways for that to impact society in a positive way and so I am really excited about digging in and determining what that is going to look like here at Tulane.

As I said, you are the first person to hold this job, in so far as you can speak to it, considering you just joined, do you know what motivated the creation of this position?

I think that there is a saying out there, necessity is the mother of all invention and for those that know a little bit about the city of New Orleans, we tend to be in Hurricane Alley, and there have been a lot of challenges related to some of the devastation that this city has experienced throughout its history.

So, this idea that innovation can create impact, can create solutions, can keep people in the city of New Orleans and developing opportunities for that, being philosophical, the American dream, I think is really the basis of the foundation for what the leadership team here at Tulane University and its alums, and alums that have stepped up to provide funding to support such a large initiative. This umbrella will help really be the DNA behind accelerating the development of products and technologies from the science being done at Tulane.

There is also a component here that will engage community and economic development in city leaders as well as industry to really create an environment where the city can thrive and the people that really care about the city of New Orleans can also thrive, their families can thrive through this path to building bridges for opportunity.

I think one of my earliest memories, if you can call it that, of New Orleans is probably hurricane and flooding. When I was still on school reading the newspapers, and I still have not managed to actually go there. I have been to other places in the US, but I have still not seen New Orleans. But one day I will make it, and hopefully it will not be hurricane season.

That is right. Well, it is a bit moist right now here in August. The rain and humidity are second to none, but as we come out of the summer months and head into fall and festival season, it is quite frankly the most culturally dynamic, beautiful city that there is, and there is a lot to experience here. So, we hope to have you soon.

There’s probably a few universities over the last years that have created a CIO or chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. Do you think that will be eventually the reality at all universities across the US?

I think that is a great question. I think that innovation, while faculty and researchers think about innovation in terms of how they are developing their research agenda, translating research and commercialization activities and the work that I will be doing here at Tulane University is really a different take.

I would love to see every university across our great nation having a role like this or emphasizing the role of innovation at their university, but there are still some challenges around thinking through building infrastructure to support these kinds of endeavours, and frankly, there is a lot of risk associated with the development of technologies, funding those technologies, investing in those technologies, investing in university spinouts and so on.

So, I think we have some work to do in terms of building the bridge to helping our leaders at universities understand the significance and the importance, and then giving them pathways and funding, whether that is through federal funding or otherwise, to support infrastructure and teams of people that have the knowledge to really accelerate and create that kind of value from the science being done at their university. So, the short answer is, of course, absolutely, I would love to see every university have an emphasis here, but the reality is operationalizing it takes a bit of time, and leaders need a little help in understanding what that might look like.

Part of what my dissertation is on is building a framework where leaders can look at some research and try to understand where their university fits in the spectrum of innovative universities and try to build strategies around how they can also create this kind of dynamic opportunity to translate research.

That sounds fascinating. I did see that you are a PhD candidate, but I had not realised that the topic would be this fascinating, so I will have to have you come back when you have defended your thesis and talk more about that.

I would love that. I would love that. Yes. I would love to talk a little bit about how I arrived in that program and talk about what I learned along the way, and then how that results in some research that hopefully becomes very applicable.

You have already been at a couple of universities before this where you did help leaders build infrastructure. You were at Texas Tech, Florida Atlantic University. You founded two accelerators, a research park. You helped launch a $10m agtech seed fund, and now at Tulane, as you said, you are leading the new Innovation Institute.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what this institute is and what programnes you are planning to launch here?

Absolutely. Thanks for that question. I think what my research has taught me is that every innovation ecosystem is like a fingerprint. They are all different, and it is a function of the talent, the people that are there that are developing the research and leading innovation centres. It is a function of the infrastructure that a region has. It is a function of where they are in the United States or globally, and what they can bring to bear to differentiate themselves, but also leverage infrastructure and talent to create an ecosystem that is special and unique to that region.

There are only so many resources across our great nation, and I think about that is I am developing these ecosystems and so I have this perspective from these other two universities and doing this needs assessment and what that looks like and really having candid conversations about leaders in the region that can help us to understand where our gaps really lie.

So, while I am in the very early stages of that needs assessment and trying to understand that, I can give you the sense of where we are going based on what I think is really important and really staples for every innovation ecosystem. So, at our institute we will have three components which will make perfect sense to you and your listeners.

We will have the commercialise pillar, will have the energise pillar, and then vitalise pillar. So, these pillars are structured and integrated to support commercialisation activities that are related to our technology development, incubation, and really helping the innovation pipeline to thrive, as well as providing good and transparent intellectual property management.

So, I think about a pipeline like I am gardening. So, the pipeline of technologies and research that comes through has an evolution process and we will be looking at technology readiness levels and being able to tag things in a management system. So, my broader team, folks at the university, can help us to identify a network that can continue to develop the technology, take a technology through preclinical studies and so on and so forth, and so I think that is really foundational to being good at commercialising technology.

Then we have our energise pillar, and that is where some of our programming will sit. So, things like webinars and seminars and lunch and learns. Maybe even some competitive activities, like, one way to create culture around a university of faculty that may not have expertise in innovation is to create opportunities for them to embed innovation best practices in their syllabi.

So, now they are not required to teach it, they can reach out to my team and we can come in and help them and provide them some literature to also teach it themselves, but they become ambassadors for entrepreneurship education, and they can be in an arts program, they can be in a STEM program, they can be an architecture program.

So, creating on ramps that are unlikely places will be really important for this energise component to create culture around innovations, though it is not scary to take risk or talk about new ideas and go to college to create a job versus get a job. And so, socialising that in curriculum development, co-curricular programming will be really important in this energise pillar.

Then we have this vitalise killer, and this is a bit unique for many universities because typically these innovation centres or entrepreneurial centres can be for faculty, staff, and students. So, there is some direct affiliation with the university, whereas the vitalise pillar will be a coordinated, co-developed effort with the ecosystem external to the university environment.

So we have, for example, the Idea Village Accelerator that started over a decade ago that supports startups here in New Orleans. We do not want to duplicate their efforts, but how do we supercharge what they are doing? Compliment what they are doing?

And build a more integrated ecosystem that is supercharged. I think that is really important to us. How do we bring innovation and entrepreneurship to unlikely places in the community to inspire, excite people that never thought that they could be an entrepreneur.

So, evaluating, assessing, convening community leaders around what that might look like is really important to me personally and to Tulane in terms of this vitalise pillar so that we can really strateg regional efforts and think about ourselves as a community of many versus a university driver only being the only thing in town that might be proactively working towards innovation and entrepreneurship.

There is so much more going on in our vibrant cities and towns across the nation, and to be a convener and someone to help that dialogue along is critical to a successful innovation ecosystem.

That makes a lot of sense. You help pull everyone up, not just the people who happened to have passed those, whatever it was, the 8.6% who managed to get in.

Exactly. We have a lot of knowhow, but I think we need to be humble about what we do know and how we can bring resources to bear for the good of many that we call our community and I think that will be something that can help the other two pillars along. It makes better use of resources, and it presents a better picture to the world at large about our ecosystem being efficient and inclusive, and I think that is something that really excites people and makes them want to be a part of something that is moving in that direction.

What are some of the challenges in building this offering? In New Orleans specifically, but also as a university more generally?

I think sometimes the challenges specific to university environments can be that there are a lot of moving parts to a big institution. We get pretty busy doing the things that we do best and that we are being held accountable for.

When you think about innovation, that does not happen in a vacuum, and so we need multidisciplinary teams to come together. We need experts across lots of different areas to look at solving some of our scientific problems, but also some of those community problem. And so I think that the challenge is bringing people together from these different walks of life that can add their expertise to solving these problems in a way that, we call it innovation, but we see with the CHIPS and Science Act, how this is supposed to be about more than just your one institution and so by the very nature of universities and what they do, they are accustomed to working within that structure, and I think breaking down those silos I think is always something that we will spend some time doing until we get really good at building flywheels around in.

So, Tulane is not unlike any other institution around that. I think our president and our leadership team are trying to find ways in going back to the first question, elevating innovation really helps to get people’s minds thinking about, oh, well, what else can I do? They are not disincentivised for trying things that are more out of the box from your traditional structure within a university and so I think that that is and will be for a little bit of time. My hope is that some of my research will uncover some of these models or frameworks that would help universities to fast track how they do that, and so I am excited about exploring that more deeply.

The other thing that I think is a challenge is that universities interacting with communities, so communities think universities know everything and universities do not necessarily know everything. And so how we convene and co-develop is really important to thinking about innovation, thinking about broader workforce initiatives, broader requests for building the kinds of infrastructure needed that would really supercharge a region.

And so, I think about those conversations. We all have, I hate to use the word agenda, but we all work for organizations that prioritise different types of metrics. That is important to them. And the more we talk about these things and align them, the faster we get to do things together, that one in one is not two, one in one is 11. And so I think that there is some sort of thought in my mind that that challenge is something that we can work at and be better at both personally and professionally

I really like that. One and one is 11. I might steal that from you.

Yes. It is just how you look at it. And so, a lot of times I find that we are actually trying to achieve the same things and we may be using different language or different types of metrics to achieve those things. My dad used to say, You have two ears and one mouth, so if you listen twice as much as you talk, you will understand things better.

And really it is a really important lesson that I learned very early on in life, and I think that is part of being collaborative and co-developing, is my training may be different from your training may be different from someone else’s training and so how we hear things and the way that our skills and competencies are developed really can bias us on how we are listening to some of the challenges or things that are gaps in our communities that we are trying to solve.

And so, I very intently listen to my partners about those things to try to find bridges in the words and the things that can align us better and so those are challenges because we do use different types of metrics to support impact. And I think sometimes they are not as different as we think they are.

Perhaps on a happier note, what are the opportunities in Tulane’s ecosystem?

Well, that is another wonderful question. So, I think from, and I do not feel like I am an expert in this today given I have only been here a short time. I think that there are probably lots of opportunities, but I want to kind of home in on one area in particular because I think it is an area we are most well-known for in our research.

But the region’s health and science industries is the fastest growing in our nation. We have had a 12% increase in employment and more than $3 billion recent public and private investments that occurred pre pandemic and so we believe investing in the health science sector is a really great opportunity for us to build a more resilient regional economy and provide increased high paying job opportunities.

And that is something that we have collectively been thinking about. We submitted with our partners a Build Back Better grant proposal that focused on this area and talks a lot about building one of these industry growth clusters around the health science space. I would say roughly over 75% of terrain’s research funding is in the health science research area. So, historically we have been very, very strong in being awarded NIH funding. So, that is one of the major building blocks to helping to support the region.

So, I think we have the opportunity to catalyse this and think about how we would commercial some of these technologies supporting licensing to industry and universities spinouts in areas like therapeutics and pharma. So, we as an institution, are also making a huge investment in what I would loosely refer to as a medical innovation district.

So, pre-Hurricane Katrina, there is a huge facility called the Charity Hospital, which is about a million square footage space that sits in the middle of our downtown area, and it is enormous. We are a block away from it. The institute sits right next to the Tulane Medical Center, and then you have got Charity Hospital. So, you can see this huge building from the interstate, and it is not too far from the Superdome where New Orleans Saints play, but it has been closed since Katrina.

So, it is been a blighted area in our community for a long, long time and Tulane University with our development partners are putting together a redevelopment strategy and it is public, and so people can Google this, but this occurs because Tulane is making a huge investment in about three to 400,000 square foot of that space to grow our research enterprise.

So, we have a very, very aggressive plan in growing the infrastructure and adding hundreds of faculty and employees in this facility as it comes online in the next two to three years, I think it will be a very exciting day when those doors reopen because of the historical value that that hospital has placed and most people that are from New Orleans were born in that hospital, and so there is a lot of legacy around the Charity Hospital and this idea that we are revitalising it, and this will be the new home for the Innovation Institute, will send a strong message about innovation and the development of our startup community and how we will be creating space and place to bring some of the greatest minds together to convene in this historical building that means so much to the people of New Orleans.

If it is another couple of years until it opens, it will be going on two decades since Hurricane Katrina and it closed down.

Exactly. I am one person that gets the opportunity to be a part of something special and transformational for one of the greatest cities in our country and you cannot underestimate the power that a university that brings innovation to bear for a community.

I said, necessity is the mother of all invention, but really the kind of tragedy that a city like this has experienced, they appreciate life like no other city I have ever seen. They are very deserving of the institution coming to the community to say, We want to change the trajectory of New Orleans, take the best of what it has to offer and create these things called generational wealth and provide opportunity that is closely related to our American dream, and what makes it so special is that we do these kinds of things that can make a difference individually and in the families of those individuals.

Speaking of making a difference, you have already mentioned that you have got quite a lot of female and BIPOC students. Do you track the engagement that you get from them in terms of innovation, and do you operate any outreach programmes that are targeted at them?

I will say this again, we are still pretty new in our development of our programming, but I will point to something that will share with your listeners that our president understands the significance and the importance of this. He has started the President’s Commission on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which is the driver behind how we will embed DEI, and then I always add an A, accessibility, throughout all of our programming that we are to develop for the Innovation Institute. So, we call it a plan for now, a strategy for tomorrow.

So, this idea of building these bridges is as important to me, as it is to our president and others here at Tulane. So, I will give you an example because I thought this was terrific and really is representative of the notion of how we think about building these kinds of effort into the institutes here at Tulane. Recently researchers launched a new health equity institute, and so this specific institute is looking at health issues such as covid-19 and how that disproportionately impacted the black community in New Orleans.

So, we are thinking about that in our develop so much so that recently I am part of a couple of different great opportunities, and again, this idea of from concept to implementation, it is embedded in how we approach inclusion, how we approach accessibility, is we are writing that into all of the types of activities that will support the onboarding of as many good ideas as we possibly can get our hands on at the Innovation Institute.

So, we will track it. I am known for tracking everything that moves related to innovation. In my former role, we were part of an NSF I-Corps site. I was the lead PI on that, and then part of a node. And for those of you who do not know what the I-Corps programme is, you probably should. It is a rigorous commercialisation programme funded by the NSF, but it helps you to identify teams that have some interesting or novel technologies, and they can do some customer discovery.

In those programmes, we averaged about 60 to 70% underrepresented population, and so part of that is a makeup of your environment and the pool where students and faculty you pull from, but nonetheless it is also something that speaks to how important it is for us to track this and to be very intentional about the role modelling that happens, the idea that women and underrepresented groups are there and experiencing these things in safe environments that will help them to learn about innovation, commercialisation, new venture development, and having that experience in a university environment will go a long way to supporting our economic development efforts and so on.

Your various initiatives over the years have helped launch more than, I think, more than 279 startups. What are the characteristics you have found that indicate whether they will make a good entrepreneur?

I love this question and so I would respond to this saying I do not have research around these characteristics, but I do have a lot of cycles with a lot of different founders in very different cities and regions across the country.

So, my personal experience over the years in terms of working with these founders, I feel like curiosity is something that is always a part of a successful founder’s journey. The entrepreneurs and the innovators that find us and find our programmes are people that are incredibly curious, and they are never settling for what they know.

They want to learn things and they want to understand how to do things. So, I think curiosity is one of the characteristics I have observed that is always present. Experimentation, and so along with being curious, they want to test and see if it really does what everybody says it does. So, it feels like the essence of life to me, and they just want to try it, and they want to know that it works and they do not hold back in terms of when they think about it versus when they want to experiment with that and that can be in a scientific setting.

Our researchers and entrepreneurs are not that different because experimentation is critical to understanding what they are doing and they have that curiosity to push that through. They might have different peer groups that evaluate whether the science is truly novel. Entrepreneurs have the marketplace, but there is a ferociousness around that experimentation and that curiosity that usually is present with some of the most successful founders that I have worked with. Risk tolerance. They innately understand that without risk, there is not opportunity. So, they are not fearful.

And I have this acronym and I have to say, I did not create this acronym, I borrowed it from someone else. FEAR, they do not… they have little of it: False Evidence of Appearing Real. They like risk. They are comfortable with failure. And they wear it like badges of honour, and they think about it as that is what I know, that this is what I do not need to do because I already experimented with that. That does not work, and I am moving on to my next iteration.

So, risk tolerance and comfortable with failure I would say are also really important characteristics. And then I will end on this one. I think that it goes without saying that deep passion for what they are doing is really also present. I think this is where they get their fuel. This is what supercharges their motivation. They work countless hours to do those experiments and to really uncover what might be disruptive in their creation.

My Dad used to say, love what you do, it will not feel like work. And I am sure many of the fathers out there have said that to their sons and daughters. But it is very true, and I think that if you want to be a great innovator or a great founder, you do it because you are passionate about it and you think it is going to make some kind of impact. These four or five characteristics really help people to achieve greatness. Does not feel a lot like work, and we are just looking for the answer.

If you had a magic wand, what is the one thing that you would change about innovation and entrepreneurship?

Yes, I love this question because I think that over the course of my career, I have had my share of challenges, and I might even share a couple of those with you if we have an extra moment. But I think if I had a magic wand, I would make innovation a third pillar within higher education to compliment research and education.

Back in the day, I think it was in the US, it was the Morill Act of, I think it is 1864, do not quote me on that, but it was Abraham Lincoln that signed in the law to create the land grant universities, and that was a wonderful thing for educating the workforce.

Today, innovation, the way that, the speed at which things evolve and change, adding the pillar called innovation would help universities position themselves and the research that is being done, and the largest thing that they translate every year are students and knowledge into the workforce.

I would put innovation there, fund it well, and have us figure out how we can be disruptive without being disrupting in creating innovations that solve our world’s challenges and can get out into the marketplace at a quicker pace and give companies opportunities to work with us and communities, opportunities to work with us because we are all in this thing called life together.

I like that. We do have a few minutes, so I might ask you about the challenges as well, because you have mentioned that one. What was an unexpected or unusual challenge that you have had to overcome in your career?

I think that this is both a strength and a weakness, or a challenge and an opportunity. A lot of times in my roles, I did not know what I did not know because I was the only person championing the innovation flag at a university, quite frankly.

That does not mean that there are not faculty championing innovation and so on, but at the administration leadership level. So, we quite often ask the leaders of an institution to do things that they have never been exposed to doing. For example, creating a venture fund. And so, I had won this federal grant. Everybody was going to be excited as I was about winning it to create this venture fund, had the money to do it, and lots of folks interested in investing in it.

But the mechanism for creating a venture fund and running a venture fund at a higher education institute is non-existent and frankly, universities are risk averse and so they do not have the bench strength, knowhow or the infrastructure and the mechanisms in place to do these kinds of things. While I wrote a compelling proposal and thought it was the next thing since slice bread, there was a lot of work we had to do to socialise it and bring everyone along to feel comfortable reputationally with the university, the mechanisms, the conflicts that arise from making investment decisions in a non-profit world, so on and so forth.

I think that it can be a very lonely road and uphill battle when you are the only champion. But I would say that if we, going back to my magic wand, want to embed innovation in higher education in a way that accelerates the science and the knowledge creation and the translation of that knowledge into our students to be more innovative, then doing these things for the first time might be a little difficult. But they are really important to take on and to identify best practices that help our leaders to be very comfortable with the idea that we are trying to back our own people’s ideas, frankly, and resources and funding and a return on investment is really about hopefully investing back in the research enterprise to create what Patrick Morton, our COO here, talks about the virtuous cycle of research and it takes dollars to fund BSL-2 and -3 labs. And it takes dollars to create things and finding ways that create those mechanisms is a great challenge, but also can be very rewarding.

I think you are very right. That unfortunately means we are out of time. I am very sad, I would quite like to keep talking to you, but an hour is all we had. Kimberly, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It has been a real pleasure and I am definitely going to have to have you back when your PhD thesis is done.

I would love that. I would love that. And thank you for the honour of talking with you and sharing with you. I will look forward to having future discussions around innovation and as we start building our programmes, I would love to share those with you in more.

I would love to hear more about them. Thank you, Kimberly.

All right. Thank you.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).