Kimberly Gramm sits at a conference table in front of a contemporary painting

A Coach for Innovation

Kimberly Gramm leads the new Innovation Institute, which is at the vanguard of improving lives and transforming New Orleans and the region by boosting breakthroughs and discoveries and spurring the creation of new businesses that will bring these advances to market faster.

Above: Kimberly Gramm is the new Innovation Institute’s inaugural David and Marion Mussafer Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer. (Photography by Paula Burch-Celentano)


At the dedication ceremony for the new Innovation Institute in June, with a backdrop of bright blue and green umbrellas, Tulane President Michael A. Fitts extolled the qualifications and experience of Kimberly Gramm, the inaugural David and Marion Mussafer Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer.

“We had an extensive search committee for the head of the institute, and Kimberly, as you should know, rose immediately to the top,” said Fitts.

The Innovation Institute is a multimillion-dollar, long-term project that will act as a combined technology and startup accelerator for university faculty, researchers, staff, students and community members. It is expected to have a major impact on the regional economy, attracting more than $100 million in capital and powering business and job creation.

The Innovation Institute is “a direct result of investments in research at Tulane,” said Fitts, noting the 50% jump in research funding between 2017 and 2021 with anticipation for another record year in 2022.

“Out of that explosion in research, the Innovation Institute will help advance Tulane’s most promising ideas for entrepreneurial development, creating new startups, accelerating those companies while fully engaging with the innovation and entrepreneurial communities in New Orleans,” said Fitts.

Thirteen15, the new Gravier Street residential and retail development on Tulane’s downtown campus, is the first stop for the Innovation Institute, which will move to a redeveloped Charity Hospital building within the next few years.

The Innovation Institute will serve as a “convener, collaborator and motivator” for startup talent in the community — and at Tulane, said Patrick Norton, senior vice president and chief operating officer. Driven by the university’s “core strengths in biotech, health sciences, energy, infectious disease and engineering,” the Innovation Institute will “harness and deploy the vast power of Tulane’s top-ranked research enterprise and welcome intellectual assets like never before.”

Under Gramm’s leadership, the institute will identify basic research that has potential to bring about marketable products and services. It will shepherd emerging research and technology approaches from the proof-of-concept phase to pre-seed investment and eventually venture investment.

Gramm has “a passion” for innovative technology activity and “an understanding of what it will mean to Tulane University,” said Fitts.

She has “an incredible track record,” he added.

Gramm is a seasoned leader of university innovation and commercialization projects. She has more than 14 years of early-stage technology venture development experience in Texas and Florida. Her initiatives have launched more than 279 startups, which have attracted more than $470 million in investment capital.

Gramm came to Tulane from Texas Tech University, where she was associate vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship, responsible for leading economic and industry engagement, increasing startup development, expanding commercialization programs for faculty and students, and growing the university’s innovation district.

With Gramm’s past success, Fitts said, “I can’t underscore enough how happy we are to have her on board.”

Visionary Support

Tulane’s Innovation Institute has three core pillars: entrepreneurial programming on campus, community engagement with the wider New Orleans startup community, and an innovation lab named after Robert L. Priddy (UC ’69).

Priddy, whose career spanned aviation and private equity, and his wife, Kikie, run the Priddy Family Foundation, along with their daughter and son-in-law, Shannon and Mike Acks, and their son, Christopher Priddy. The foundation made a lead gift to establish the Robert L. Priddy Innovation Lab.

“Throughout my career I’ve loved watching small ventures grow into thriving enterprises,” said Robert Priddy. “In the Innovation Institute, I see a promising idea with the power to capitalize on Tulane’s existing strengths and grow into something huge for the city and the Gulf Coast.”

Gramm said that the Priddy Innovation Lab “is designed to systematically provide resources to multidisciplinary teams that will test a technology, make sure it works and does what they thought it would to solve the problem. Does the innovation solve a problem for a market?”

The Innovation Lab will be a competitive environment, said Gramm. Inventors and creators will submit abstracts with their ideas along with proposed milestones for product development and budgets.

There is something called the Valley of Death in a technology/startup stage of development, said Gramm. Ideas can sometimes flounder, and products never get off the ground between when the inventor has an idea and the point when revenue can actually be generated.

“We think of revenue as the lifeblood of a startup company,” said Gramm. “Startups have to have money to survive so that they can become profitable.”

Many startups fail because they don’t have the resources to test whether or not the invention works. Or the startup may not have the capacity to identify a viable market. That’s where the Innovation Lab will have a major impact to support the progression of an idea to the market.

“The idea is creating things that people really need,” said Gramm.

Peas in a Pod

Researchers and entrepreneurs are alike, said Gramm. They both are testing hypotheses through a “humbling process of iteration.”

While researchers are validated through peer-reviewed journal articles, competitive grants funding and other accolades, “in the case of entrepreneurs, the market tells them if technologies or products are necessary and competitive,” said Gramm.

“Iteration is this process of evaluating something, testing it, and then going back, testing it again, making a small adjustment and getting it right.”

Gramm addresses an audience at the Innovation Institute from a podium
Gramm addresses the audience at the Innovation Institute dedication ceremony in June.

Gramm said she serves at the “intersection of working with intellectual giants, both in science and industry,” who are trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

She sees herself as a coach linking the innovation to the right team, the right resources, at the right time to develop, flourish and grow. The Innovation Institute under her leadership will “commercialize, energize and vitalize” ideas coming out of Tulane labs and classrooms.

Researchers and entrepreneurs are driven in similar ways, said Gramm. “They are innately curious and struggle to find solutions and scratch the itch of something they know can be better.” The results may only be seen after a long road with years of work, but the “challenging journey is inspiring.”

American Dream

The struggle and push to make things better are tied to the American Dream for Gramm. “It’s what makes our country great.” She’s the granddaughter of Polish immigrants who came to this country in search of opportunity.

Innovation is personal for Gramm. “Because I believe in our country and the opportunity it brings, particularly related to education,” she said. “We try to solve problems through innovation. And the way we do that fascinates me, I love being a part of it.”

Gramm especially believes in higher education. She started her career working as a corporate marketing strategist at UPS, which had 457,000 employees around the globe at that time and where decisions were made using big data. That experience positioned her for working in an institutional environment such as Tulane University, she said.

“If you can’t learn this in higher education, where do you learn how to innovate?”

She’s near the completion of a dissertation on “Innovation ecosystems within higher education” as she pursues a PhD from Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources at Texas Tech University.

“Higher education is the place where people can learn how to do these things and do them in a way that is meaningful,” said Gramm. “If you can’t learn this in higher education, where do you learn how to innovate?”

Her immediate plans at Tulane are to hire a high-impact team that is experienced and dynamic. “We want to be able to support faculty, students and community entrepreneurs in a way that’s comprehensive,” said Gramm. “To start with, it makes sense that we think about innovation on a continuum, emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. That’s important to us.”

On campus, the Innovation Institute will work with the Office of Research and the Office of Intellectual Property Management as well as programs at the A. B. Freeman School of Business, like the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and others around campus that emphasize innovation. To get the word out about the institute, Gramm plans to tap Innovation Ambassadors among the faculty ranks. “So that we create an environment and a culture that’s peer-to-peer, and relational, so faculty can learn from each other, as we continue to deepen the innovation culture across the campus.”

Gramm likes the term “ambassadors.” She thinks of these individuals as champions for innovation. “It’s piqued their interest, or they’ve done work in innovation and entrepreneurship. I happen to think many people that I’ve met here at Tulane thus far are embracing innovation.”

colorful umbrellas decorate the outside of a downtown building
Jaunty umbrellas, installed for the dedication, decorate Thirteen15 on Gravier Street.

In the city of New Orleans, the Innovation Institute will be “all about connecting, fueling and recharging community opportunities,” said Gramm. Organizations such as New Orleans BioInnovation Center, Propeller, and The Idea Village support entrepreneurs in different ways. Initially, Gramm and her team will assess how to work with these programs versus duplication of efforts.

University spinouts and community startups may result in different products and technologies, said Gramm. But there are similarities in basic entrepreneurship education around starting a company, identifying the appropriate market, and developing a team that are universal.

“It’s important to strengthen the underpinnings of what our community is doing, as well as provide educational support and perhaps competitive funding opportunities so that community entrepreneurs reduce the time to market,” said Gramm.

“My vision is to put us on a national stage. I think we have all the elements, ingredients and tenacity to do that.”

Role of Alumni

Gramm wants alumni to know of Tulane’s ambitious goals for the Innovation Institute. “Our visibility will grow,” she said.

“My vision is to put us on a national stage,” said Gramm. “I think we have all the elements, ingredients and tenacity to do that.

“We have the right leadership. We have the right board. We have the right community and a great relationship with the community that will ignite and move the Innovation Institute forward in a way that everybody will be extremely proud of.

“Tulanians can be a part of this transformational effort in many ways,” said Gramm. “They can connect our startups to their networks. They can serve as a mentor for a startup, or provide pro bono expertise, like legal advice, for a startup. Potentially, invest in our startups. Invest in the institute. Or be a role model and share their own entrepreneurial story.”

In the end, “it’s a family,” said Gramm. “We’re building a community around innovation, nurturing ideas, continuing to spark the American Dream right here in Louisiana.”