When Ron Daniels took the stage in a fourth floor auditorium inside the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in East Baltimore, he was staring down a veritable Who’s Who of Baltimore city’s tech community: startup founders, the presidents and operators of incubators, people at the helm of deep-pocketed foundations and tech company investors.
It was April 30, 2014, Demo Day for DreamIt Health Baltimore, when nine health IT startups would graduate from a four-month accelerator program backed, in part, by the Johns Hopkins University. And Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins, had one message for the startups’ founders anxiously awaiting their turn to present their companies to the crowd of at least 100.
“We want you to be successful, but we want you to be successful in Baltimore. Build roots here. Build your company here,” said Daniels.
But Daniels took it a step further, and told the crowd it is a “fundamental imperative” for the Johns Hopkins University to help build the city’s innovation ecosystem. “Building this ecosystem is … absolutely critical to the city that we call Baltimore.”
It was the sort of argot a room full of tech-company-loving spectators would expect from the president of Baltimore’s major research university. For the 34th straight year, Hopkins is number one when it comes to receiving research funding from the federal government. What made it remarkable is that — for many years and despite Hopkins’ overall prowess in reach, infrastructure and spending capabilities — Daniels’ university has lagged behind many other top-tier U.S. universities in helping build its local innovation economy through the commercialization of technology thought up in university labs and developed by its own faculty, students and researchers.
Seed Hatchery has a convenient way of explaining tech transfer: “science or technology invented at a research institution finding life – and profit – in a broader off-campus market.”
Hopkins, put simply, has been lagging mightily in tech transfer compared to its elite peers.
A report released in early April by the university’s Committee on the Innovation Ecosystem showed that Hopkins brought in $15.9 million from its technology and intellectual property licensing activities in fiscal year 2012, paltry in comparison to the $162 million taken in by Columbia University, or the $137 million made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That money represents more than just many zeroes on a check — it also means that new companies are being born from university research, which makes them likely to remain in proximity to those universities.
So here was Ron Daniels, at a day where the focus was on startups and new technology, saying that the Johns Hopkins University had to be an integral part of technology innovation in Charm City. The question now: can a leading science and technology research university of almost 140 years accelerate its tech transfer efforts to become the anchor institution of Baltimore’s technology community?
the retrospective view of Hopkins Tech Transfer
While the current financial numbers gauging the success of Hopkins’ tech commercialization efforts portray the university as a newcomer relative to other U.S. universities, Johns Hopkins’ own track record demonstrates that strides have been made since one decade ago, when just four startups were created using technology developed at Johns Hopkins.
The 2013 annual report from the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer Office (JHTT) bears this out:
- Licensing revenue increased to $17.9 million, although that still pales compared to revenue numbers from Northwestern University, Duke University, Stanford University and others.
- The number of processed invention disclosures increased to 441, a four percent increase from 2012.
- Eight startups were formed in 2013 — and five of the DreamIt Health Baltimore startups are affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University either through a licensed tech agreement or through student and faculty connections.
Forming startups is perhaps the most tangible way for Hopkins to contribute to the city’s technology community, but it’s no easy mission.
“Startups take a lot more time from a tech transfer process perspective, because there are so many new resources going in,” said Elizabeth Good Mazhari, director of ventures at Johns Hopkins since December 2009.
The ventures department within Hopkins’ tech transfer office is tasked with facilitating the creation of more startup companies based on Hopkins’ inventions and technology. Mazhari’s job is to connect faculty members with funding resources, other entrepreneurs, incubators around town and mentors who can help guide their fledgling companies.
But Mazhari stresses an approach to startup formation that favors quality over quantity — prescient, given that 90 percent of all new startups fail.
“It’s easy to start a company, but hard to bring in the necessary resources,” she said. “We want to give companies the best chance of success, [and] would rather do fewer that have all those [resources].”
nurturing an innovation ecosystem
Helping build an innovation ecosystem doesn’t always mean pushing for the creation of new startups. As Hopkins’ recently appointed tech transfer chief Christy Wyskiel notes, without physical space, services and funding, startups wouldn’t be able to thrive anyway.
A pool of seed and follow-on funding and a “network of industry and regulatory experts” were two components the Committee on the Innovation Ecosystem’s report identified as necessary for “an innovation ecosystem at Johns Hopkins.”
“Having the right advisors and right managers and access to the right people is critical to the success of any startup,” said Wyskiel.
The third and final component? Physical space for startups.
Hopkins certainly has some of the space problem solved. In late 2012 the Whiting School of Engineering opened FastForward, an accelerator program with an accompanying 20,000-square-foot incubator not far from the university’s main Homewood Campus in Charles Village. Of nearly 50 applicants to the program so far, 29 startups have been accepted, and seven of those currently lease offices inside the incubator.
“We have a huge economic impact in the area,” said John Fini, director of intellectual property and technology commercialization at the School of Engineering. “But we were finding that a lot of our tech was being transferred up to Cambridge, Mass. Or Palo Alto. We weren’t getting as many startups as are available inside the Hopkins community.”
FastForward, which Fini said could hold as many as 20 companies, is meant to stop the flow of fleeing commercialization by providing room for Hopkins-based startups to grow.
“When a startup starts in a location, it just puts down roots,” Fini said. “It doesn’t tend to move.”
That thinking is now leading Hopkins to explore the possibility of opening a similar sort of incubator in East Baltimore. Its 2014 report from the Committee on the Innovation Ecosystem calls for “physical space in East Baltimore where startups can take root and entrepreneurs of all kinds across and outside the university can interact.”
In this sense, Johns Hopkins, through technology transfer, is just now making a play to be a hub of innovation much in the same way the University of Maryland BioPark is one for biotech and health IT startups. An incubator space filled with like-minded entrepreneurs creates density and gives startup founders a reason to stick around Baltimore city — and, hopefully, license technology from Johns Hopkins.
tech transfer ‘under new management’
It’s early yet, and many of these new efforts haven’t taken hold in the way the Committee on the Innovation Ecosystem’s report calls for.
But optimism reigns right now. At Demo Day for DreamIt Health Baltimore, no one captured that feeling better than Elliot Menschik, a Johns Hopkins graduate and a partner with DreamIt Ventures, from which the four-month health accelerator takes its name.
“Tech transfer at Hopkins is under new management,” he said just before the startups’ presentations. “We can expect amazing things to come out of tech transfer out of the university in the years to come.”