Diversity & Inclusion

Inside Johns Hopkins’ plans to galvanize more student entrepreneurs

FastForward U is looking to provide resources for students who are curious about starting a business, and help undergrad-founded startups once they are formed. The latest slate of companies receiving support from the O'Connor Fund offers some examples of on-campus activity.

"Let's Do This." The interior of FastForward East. (Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

During the fall semester, students at Johns Hopkins who were interested in starting a company had some new options to turn to as they looked to develop their ideas and meet other entrepreneurs at the university.
There were monthly pitch nights, and workshops for students who are curious about starting a business. It’s all part of FastForward U, a targeted initiative to connect students with the resources for entrepreneurs that the university has been building in recent years.
“Through FastForward U we can support any and all students that are starting new ventures,” whether it’s a tech startup, social venture or nonprofit, said Darius Graham, who is overseeing FastForward U in the role of director of student ventures. He is joined in the effort by Student Venture Coordinator Kevin Carter. Graham was previously director of the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation LabAlex Riehm, who most recently ran an innovation fund at USAID, was recently named director of the accelerator supporting impact-minded ventures.
The new initiative comes at a time when we’ve noticed student energy around entrepreneurship at the university. Baltimore startups now making waves beyond campus like FactoryFour and Proscia were formed by undergrads at Hopkins, and student-formed cyber startup Fractal Technology got acquired earlier this year. and a pair of undergrads formed a nonprofit called TCO Labs to show students the upside of starting a business last year. The university can also serve as a national magnet for entrepreneurship, as shown by last year’s stop at Homewood by 3 Day Startup.

Graham said he sees a twofold mission with FastForward U. First, it’s an extension of the university’s efforts in recent years to build out entrepreneurial resources through Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures that can help the university capitalize on the technology that is created there and keep companies in the area. The new program creates a place for students who are building ventures that may originate outside the lab or university IP. It’s also designed to help expand the university’s economic footprint with more new companies, Graham said.
But as always, it’s understood that not every startup will succeed. Given JHU’s mission to educate, there’s also a recognition that starting a business can provide lots of lessons for facing down challenges.
“We also want this to be a great learning experience where students are equipped with the skills, confidence and experience to see a problem and create a solution to it,” Graham said.
FastForward U is also planning space for the student startups. The initial home will be at FastForward East, the coworking and office space which was opened in the Rangos building on JHU’s hospital campus in 2015. A new space near 29th St. and Remington Ave., just across from R. House, is also in development and targeting a 2018 opening. It will offer coworking and event space as well as a makerspace, Graham said. After moving out of the Stieff-Silver building, FastForward also now has space above the food hall within R. House, but the new student space is separate.
Even as the new initiative got going, dedicated programming was already in place. Along with serving as a spot for students who are curious about starting a business, Fast ForwardU is also overseeing the university’s O’Connor Fund, which provides $5,000, mentoring and connections for undergraduate startups that are already formed. Graham said getting picked for the fund has become more competitive, and there were 31 teams that applied to the most recent cohort.

“We’re picking what I think is really the most compelling, very advanced teams that are tackling big problems and have huge potential to reach out the goals that they set out to achieve,” Graham said.

The 2017-18 cohort of O’Connor Fund companies includes:

  • Atana, led by David Shi, is creating distributed ledger infrastructure for research and development.
  • OtoGlobal Health, led by Aseem Jain, is creating a device for hearing screenings in the developing world.
  • Treyetech, led by Eric Chiang, has a new workflow for corneal transplants.
  • VersaMaker, founded by Travis Chan, is an all-in-one maker tool that can change functionality including 3D printing, CNC routing and laser engraving. The company won a recent business competition at Open Works.
  • Weel, led by Evan Goldman, is an ecommerce that introduces aspects of IRL shopping.
Companies: Johns Hopkins

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