Leaders of Texas Tech University’s entrepreneurship efforts see West Texas as perfectly positioned.
As the head of innovation and entrepreneurship at Texas Tech University, Kimberly Gramm has a vision for West Texas.
If she has her way, the rest of the world will soon recognize Lubbock as a place full of life, growth and opportunity, where new ideas are born and raised, and the American dream thrives. The vision is not yet fully formed, even in her own head, but with the way her eyes light up and the enthusiasm in her voice, you can see it taking shape.
More importantly, you can help shape it.
Tomorrow (March 2) marks the next chapter in the creation of the first innovation district in Lubbock. With the kickoff board meeting of a new nonprofit organization, a group of people passionate about seeing this area succeed will begin making decisions that will pave the way. Texas Tech Research Park Inc. is a 501(c)(3) created to allow the university to build community and private-sector partnerships to support its research and professional activities.
"We have tremendous opportunities to work with individuals, companies and agencies that want to benefit from close proximity to the university, both at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) and at the Texas Tech campus," said Joseph A. Heppert, vice president for research & innovation. "We can use those interactions to expand our capabilities for research, collaborations on joint research or high-quality professional development, and give students opportunities to have real-world industry experience as part of their overall graduate and undergraduate professional training."
Planned for the existing research park site near Fourth Street and Quaker Avenue, the envisioned innovation district is strategically located to expand research collaborations in areas such as health, agriculture, agricultural technology and energy that are critical to the future of West Texas.
"These are all thematic initiatives that are very important both to the city of Lubbock and to the economy of the region," Heppert said. "We look at this as an opportunity for Texas Tech to reach outward from the university campus and begin engaging different partners in a way that's going to focus more high-tech research and collaboration around building the region's economy."
The innovation district will play an important role in the fulfillment of Texas Tech's strategic priorities: educating and empowering students, enabling innovative research and creative activities, and transforming lives and communities through outreach and engagement.
"Texas Tech Research Park Inc. represents our vision of how modern higher education can be a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship," said Lawrence Schovanec, Texas Tech president. "The creation of the local innovation district will provide practical experiences for our students, opportunities for commercialization of faculty research and solutions that will benefit the private sector and promote economic development. I gratefully acknowledge the excellent leadership of Kimberly Gramm, Dr. Joseph Heppert and vital community support."
At this stage, the vision for the innovation district is broad, said Gramm, who for nearly four years has led the Innovation Hub at Research Park.
"We want to set the tone so people understand what it is and why it is important to the lives of our citizens," she explained. "We want to give people a chance to have input and engage in the development process to create something unique to and for the people of West Texas. It's important to me that we develop a plan and execute a business model that sets us up for success for generations to come.
"The conversation starts here, with how we identify the things we aspire to have or to be. If we want our grandkids to have the life here in West Texas that we have, then we have to create the kinds of opportunities that compete with Dallas, Austin or other places around the country."
That doesn't mean anyone behind this effort wants Lubbock to become Dallas or Austin. After all, since many of them are members of Lubbock's academic and business communities, they know some of West Texas' biggest strengths in this new endeavor are its unique culture, history and location.
"The entrepreneurial way can be very lonely and very individualistic," Gramm said. "Because we have been isolated, this community resorts back to being a community, relying on one another to get through the challenges we have. It's that innate quality that I think has given a lot of support to what we're doing here at the Innovation Hub.
"This is a community that cares about each other, so when we knocked on the doors of our city councilmen or our mayor or our economic development groups, they were very supportive. This alignment that we have is significant, and it's actually what I would call, in the business world, our differentiator. Many communities don't have that."
Gramm's team would know. They've been studying the research parks and innovation districts of six other universities across the country, both to see how others function and to find a model for how one could function here. The goal, Gramm emphasized, is not to recreate another university's innovation district – it's to follow their map to reach our own destination.
"There are aspirational innovation districts out there that we've seen and visited, like Purdue University, where they have 250-plus companies, with an $80,000 average salary and 4,500 employees, inside their innovation district and a relationship with the city in doing projects to enable an innovative environment," Gramm said. "We want to emulate some of those activities but in the way that it makes the best sense for us here in Lubbock and in the region."
Monday's meeting will officially introduce the board's external members, all prominent national businesspeople who can help drive the innovation district's strategic planning for the next 10-20 years, as well as the ex-officio members who have the operational experience required to carry out the board's strategic activities.
"Launching this now, setting some strategic goals and working with the university administration and leadership and all the resources we have in Lubbock is really exciting to be a part of right now," said board member John Esparza, a Texas Tech alumnus and former regent as well as president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association. "When you talk about the prospect of a research park and how we've already been successful with some of the partners we currently have, it opens up a whole new universe to the young entrepreneurs out there who leave high school with a sense of direction of what they're interested in, and go to places like Texas Tech that have the brick and mortar and the wherewithal to provide that and continue to inspire that growth."
Some of the first steps will be to study this region's current capacity for real estate, research and development and industry by talking with the CEOs of companies already in Lubbock, and to determine the capacity of the current research park site to support the retail development and training opportunities that come with new businesses.
"We're going to be looking at scoping the economic capacity we have as a community and as a university to draw partnerships that will start to put buildings on that site," Heppert said. "There will be a period where we will be going through a kind of market study to understand the expectation of where we should be three years from now in the development of this site and where we can expect to be five or 10 years from now.
"Many of the major and very successful university research parks or innovation districts have taken decades to build out and develop those deep partnerships. We can expect to see this develop over a longer period of time, but I think the excitement about the development of research both at the TTUHSC and at Texas Tech University, and the commitment this community has to building innovation and bringing new industry into the community as it grows, is going to give us probably a much faster trajectory for growth than we would ordinarily expect."
The innovation district, of course, faces the same risks as any business endeavor, but with those risks come rewards. Chief among them is the chance to provide an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship that doesn't exist today.
"As the mayor, to me it's about jobs – it's trying to keep the best and brightest who go to school at Texas Tech or, for that matter, South Plains College," said Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope, one of the board's ex-officio members. "We want to keep them at home, to have good jobs and have the kinds of things that allow them to live and work and play in our community and raise their families here. When you really strip it all down, this is about creating opportunities, and I really believe this provides a fabulous opportunity for our community."
Want to go?
- What: The first board meeting for the Texas Tech Research Park Inc.
- When: 9:30 a.m. Monday (March 2)
- Where: Texas Tech Innovation Hub at Research Park, 3911 Fourth St.
- Details: The meeting will be open to the public.
- Arun Agarwal, CEO, Nextt
- John Esparza, President and CEO, Texas Trucking Association
- Curtis Griffith, Chairman and CEO, South Plains Financial Inc.
- Dr. Randy Hickle, CEO, Scott Laboratories Inc.
- Christy McClendon, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), GRACO Real Estate Development Inc.
- Sanjeev Saxena, Chairman and CEO, POC Medical Systems
- Billy Breedlove, vice chancellor of facilities planning & construction, Texas Tech University System
- Kimberly Gramm, associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship, Texas Tech
- Dr. John Griswold, medical director of the Timothy J. Harnar Burn Center, TTUHSC
- Penny Harkey, CFO, TTUHSC
- Joseph A. Heppert, vice president for research & innovation, Texas Tech
- Dan Pope, Lubbock mayor
- Phil Sizer, associate dean for research and director of the doctoral program in physical therapy, TTUHSC
- Noel Sloan, CFO, Texas Tech