At its core, innovation deals with finding new ways to improve life for everyone.
As a child, Kimberly Gramm spent hours painting eyes on fishing lures in the garage of her family's Florida home. It wasn't just a hobby; she was an integral part of building her father's dream.
Stephen Marusak, an engineer with a passion for fishing, had given up his $80,000-a-year position creating high-tech electronics in 1983 to design the best fishing lures on the market. His new company, Cotee Industries, was named for the Pithlachascotee River, where the family lived.
From such humble beginnings, Marusak built Cotee Industries into a large manufacturing business with locations in Florida and Kansas. He had more than 250 employees and dozens of patents filed while developing the best production methods for his lures. His products were sold at sporting goods stores and Walmart stores.
But his journey wasn't without obstacles. He learned firsthand about the ups and downs of the market and how Chinese manufacturers would copy American products and sell them at cheaper prices – challenges many businesses deal with in almost every industry.
"Over a couple of decades, he built this business," Gramm recalled. "It was his passion and his love."
It wasn't until he passed away in 2006 that she realized her father's reach went well beyond fishing lures.
"I learned about the impact he made on the more than 250 employees he had working in his business and how that built community," she said. "For some reason, you know it, but you don't realize the extent of the impact growing up. I think when I did realize it, he had already passed away. I understood the significance and the importance of how this great country is built, how that's tied to the individuals who dare to make their dreams a reality, how that affects the family unit, the community and our extended communities."
Following in his footsteps
Gramm, who at the time of her father's death was a corporate strategist for UPS in Atlanta, moved back to Florida to be closer to her family. She accepted a position at Florida Atlantic University where she could apply her knowledge of corporate strategy to help fledgling entrepreneurs like her father had once been.
"Not enough was being done to help people, whether they were researchers or inventors or students," she said. "To take ideas and place enough nurturing support around them, it's kind of like a garden – a garden needs water, fertilizer, and it needs sunshine to grow.
"Not only is the startup journey really hard to do, but it's also something that is very personal and meaningful. I think it's important that people have opportunity and believe in their contributions of good ideas, and that one day that may become an early-stage company. Whether they're part of a founding team or contribute in some way as an employee, it is the fabric of our country and how we get the opportunity to live a good life. Ideas and innovations need to be nurtured to flourish for us to be successful as a country."
That's why Gramm, now associate vice president of innovation & entrepreneurship at Texas Tech University, says her job is to help continue to build the American dream.
"We all want to be heard," she said. "We all have a creative side, we're all here on this planet with special skillsets to develop and practice our best selves. Everyone should have the opportunity to create their own American dream, whatever that might be.
"I feel like I have the greatest job because I get to see people who have resilience, intellect and passion for what they're here to do. We try to de-risk those ideas and technologies and present them with a roadmap so they can actually realize those dreams."
What is innovation?
Innovation, she states, can be a scary word to people who are afraid of change.
"If you're a person who isn't a lifelong learner – someone who loves to read, explore, create and understand the very essence of things – sometimes innovation looks a lot like change, and that can disrupt how you do what you do," Gramm said. "But innovation just means you're creating something that solves a problem. If the innovation is developed in a way that it helps the citizens of the world have a better life, sometimes that can involve disruptive new technologies, and sometimes that involves just a new way of doing something."
She uses the example of the Heinz ketchup bottle. Originally made of glass, with an opening on top, the bottles were often difficult to get the ketchup out of. Seeing this, Heinz redesigned the bottles, making them out of plastic, which could be squeezed, and turning them upside down so gravity helped get the ketchup out of the bottle quicker and easier. A new way of doing a task made life a bit more efficient.
While most people can easily understand why Heinz would have wanted to improve its ketchup bottle, it can be difficult to make the general public understand some of the more deep-science research going on.
One example Gramm gives is NemaLife, a company currently working out of the Innovation Hub at Research Park. As most people know, it takes a long time to make advances in medicine because new drugs must be tested thoroughly – not only for their effectiveness in achieving their goal but also in minimizing side effects – before they're approved for usage. In response, NemaLife has developed a new way of testing drugs that can significantly shorten the testing period. It uses microscopic worms with short lifespans to determine, with incredible accuracy, how human bodies might react to the drug being tested.
"Developing new types of innovation creates new types of opportunities, new jobs and wealth for people," Gramm said. "It is how a capitalistic society works. Without a pipeline of new ideas and innovations there would be a negative impact on our economy. Higher education provides fertile soil for new talent and ideas critically important in the regions they serve.
"Innovation is special to me. When someone is trying to work toward bettering themselves, through their science or whatever project or area of discipline, I respect the journey, the effort, the results and the impact it may have on the world equally. Innovation, by the very nature of it, is the act of moving ideas and solutions through a process to improve. The hope is that, whatever the innovation, we are thinking of how the public may benefit. My father always said, 'Leave it better than you found it.' He had many golden rules, and that was one of them."
At its core, Gramm emphasizes, innovation is about people – both those with the ideas and the passion to improve life for others, and the people whose lives can be improved through the implementation of those ideas. That's why she feels so fortunate to be able to help those entrepreneurs who, like her father, are striving to achieve their goals.
"When something is built from the passion and love of a person, it's really special," she said. "It doesn't feel like work to them; it feels like a life's work. I think that's part of why I love working in a university, because when you talk to faculty, students and those who champion the work, that's why they do it. Ideas and innovations truly serve our higher calling; we all want to leave the world a better place, and our products, technologies or services are all manifestations of how each person in the community contributes to the greater good."