Imagine working toward your PhD at Johns Hopkins University in human genetics or physiology — slogging away at what seems like endless hours in the lab — all while launching a social networking startup here in Baltimore. And you don’t have any real office space save for frequent meetings at the aptly named Fells Point coffee shop Daily Grind.
It’s the story of BusyGrad, a free online tool designed to help graduate students communicate with each other and help them more easily navigate their daily lives in school.
Launched last fall, BusyGrad is the brainchild of Jon Robinson, a current JHU graduate student, who partnered with Lawrence Gray, a fellow JHU student, to ramp up this new student service. From social to recommendations to listings, the service might seem like it’s squaring off against an array of Web 2.0 crown jewels, but the founders say the secret is in keeping the community focused, narrow and relevant.
With plans for expansion beyond the JHU campus looming and usage growing, the BusyGrad team is testing whether there is room on the social media globe for a niche network to have longterm growth.
Robinson, 30, is nearing completion of a PhD in human genetics with JHU’s School of Medicine, focusing on genetic disease. And Gray, 32, is close to finishing his doctorate in cellular and molecular physiology — during which time he’s discovered a new molecule that could possibly help diagnose and treat those with Wilson’s disease.
So how did BusyGrad emerge through all of this? Robinson, who grew up in the Philadelphia area and did undergrad at Cornell, says he was bugged by the general lack of communication between students in his graduate school.
And that led to his thinking more about what graduate students important life needs are, such as housing and employment, and to what degree they weren’t being met.
“So I’m pretty new to technology and a self-taught coder,” says Robinson. “I sort of analyzed and thought about what exactly are grad students missing or lacking, what did I need as a grad student myself, what are other grad students going to need. So, with that, I created this platform to facilitate communication where you can easily talk to just your classmates or talk to your entire school – and then there’d be other sections dedicated to certain needs of grad students – both in school and outside of school.”
So Robinson, using PHP and MySQL (same platform under Facebook), built and launched BusyGrad (without any involvement or opposition from JHU). After the site’s first week online, Gray, who grew up in Louisiana and graduated from Cal State-Fullerton, heard about it and signed up as BusyGrad’s 20th member, looking to connect with other JHU grad students who were gamers.
And it was then Gray decided to email blindly into BusyGrad asking if he could help get involved and build out the new service. Robinson said yes to Gray’s offer and the partnership — and the site — took off.
BusyGrad’s online interface is simple and easy to navigate. The site is open and free to all JHU graduate students who have an official JHU ID.
BusyGrad’s features are tailored to the typical grad student’s most pressing needs. Consider housing. Since many JHU grad students come from all over the globe, many don’t know much about Baltimore, much less where to live. Within BusyGrad, users click on the “Housing” tab and view landlord and roommate ads for apartments and rental units. And, to be sure, landlords like grad students as tenants: all incoming students undergo criminal background checks by JHU, these students generally prefer to live in one place for many years and and they tend to treat properties well.
“We have these grad students who are staying five to seven years — most grad students don’t want to move around — they want to stay where they are. So we’re able to convey that to landlords, who then advertise with us,” says Gray.
Another key need BusyGrad serves is what’s called “reagent sharing,” the common method among science-focused grad students of sharing anything needed for labwork (such as vectors, antibodies, cell lines, lab equipment).
Below watch the pair present at the July TechBreakfast.
Grad students click on the “Science” tab and can post a request or post an item to share (and then contact is made via email alerts).
“The students years ago had set up a listserv where you emailed anyone ‘I need this reagent.’ It got really popular but everyone was getting hundreds of emails a day and people got frustrated. Plus there was no record of all this sharing and no inventory could be built for continued sharing,” says Robinson. “So I wanted to try and address that . . . and the grad students really got on it and that’s the way we now share reagents at our school.”
BusyGrad also covers — via its easy to spot tabs across the top of the password-protected homepage — information sharing for employment, recommendations for restaurants, happy hours, bars and area services, a “for sale” forum and, lest it go unremarked, an easy way to foster student dating via its own safe “like” functionality.
Comparing BusyGrad to the major social players is inevitable. So how does BusyGrab stand to compete with Facebook for social, craigslist for listings, Yelp for reviews and Twitter for active connections? In short, the more selective community is what works, they say.
“BusyGrad is a micro-community focused on grad students and everything grad students care about,” says Robinson. “So within that you’re essentially bringing like-minded people together, people that have the same problems, thinking similarly, you trust these individuals. Say you want to find a cheap place to eat: I’ll trust a grad student for that recommendation. The thing is BusyGrad is not trying to be a Facebook in that you’re trying to find out exactly what your friend did last weekend. BusyGrad is communication based on needs.”
Robinson and Gray say BusyGrad is catching on fast – its community is growing about 10 percent per month. The site has emerged as a vital online student community service: BusyGrad markets itself to all new incoming students (even before they come to Baltimore).
“Once you show the site to the JHU graduate student program coordinators, they’re completely on board because there’s nothing like it that exists for the students and they realize students really need this. It solves a lot of problems for them,” says Gray.
Robinson and Gray say JHU’s official communications portals are primarily centered on school-to-student communications, and that BusyGrad neatly fills the void on helping grad students with their lives outside of the classroom or lab.
BusyGrad is on the cusp of expanding beyond JHU.
Robinson and Gray are setting up the service for University of Maryland, Baltimore grad students and they plan to expand to the Baltimore region’s other university graduate programs. In addition, plans are underway longer term for an undergraduate version of the site.
Robinson and Gray say revenue plans for now center on growing its classified-based system wherein advertisers pay to access students in their structured BusyGrad communities.
“The idea of BusyGrad is really the nested communities. I can talk to just my classmates in my year or I can talk to my whole program with a click of a button or I can talk to the entire graduate school,” says Robinson. “Or I can talk between University of Maryland, Baltimore and Johns Hopkins with just a click of a button. You really don’t have that capability with communities on Facebook.”
In addition, Robinson and Gray are seeking funding from outside investors. While they were recently denied funding from TEDCO, Robinson and Gray say they learned a lot from the application experience. The two partners also are committed to growing BusyGrad even as they near finishing their academic programs. Both Robinson and Gray likely will undertake post-doc positions at JHU and continue growing BusyGrad to the point where they can run it full
“We are in the midst of splitting time focusing on an experiment and wondering if we got the next round of postcards printed for BusyGrad,” says Gray.