This semester, FastForward U (FFU) will begin offering entrepreneurial advising to students looking to start a company or business venture. FFU is an initiative from Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), an office that facilitates licensing and patents for Hopkins researchers and supports technology startups.
FastForward is a program launched at the Whiting School of Engineering in 2013 to provide resources for private companies to develop technology startups. Under FastForward, FFU aims to extend those resources to student ventures by offering mentorship and grant preparation.
According to FFU’s Student Venture Coordinator Kevin Carter, FastForward was founded after University President Ronald J. Daniels wanted to expand entrepreneurship opportunities at Hopkins.
“In 2013 President Daniels issued a report to bridge that gap between the basic research that Hopkins has been excelling at for centuries and the applied research or the commercialization of that research, which Hopkins has not traditionally excelled at,” Carter said.
Some students, such as junior Pava LaPere, have observed that in the past students have lacked access to startup resources and that the University largely focused on medical technology ventures. LaPere is the president of TCO Labs, a nonprofit established two years ago to connect undergraduates with entrepreneurial opportunities in Baltimore.
She said that before FFU, the JHTV Student Venture Coordinator was the only resource from the University that undergraduate entrepreneurs could take advantage of.
“Despite the University putting a good amount of emphasis on entrepreneurship through the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures and the start of FastForward, very little of that was focused on undergraduate students,” LaPere said. “The vast majority of entrepreneurial activity goes on with the faculty and medical campus.”
Darius Graham, the director of student ventures at Hopkins, said that the University has focused on commercial startups for several years. Typically, these were led by either faculty or external companies using the University’s equipment and space.
He added that FFU would build on the resources already available to give students more opportunities.
“Technology is changing and I think we need to make sure that students are at the forefront of that, and that students are being equipped with the opportunities and the skills and the resources to be problem solvers and change makers,” Graham said.
Construction of FastForward U Homewood, a facility in Remington, is expected to finish in the fall of 2018. Currently, FFU has a space on the East Baltimore Campus called FastForward East and a temporary space in the Wyman Park Building.
FastForward U Homewood will be built near R. House, a restaurant that offers space to a range of vendors. FastForward already has space in R. House for its commercial startups.
“They’ll be just next door to the students that are working in FastForward U Homewood, so we want to do a lot of connecting students with other entrepreneurs,” Graham said.
FFU will provide free consultation for student ventures. Carter said that he has met with a range of students, from those who are brainstorming ventures to those who have already launched their ventures and want help with marketing.
While FFU will work to help student ventures enter the market, Carter said that there is no risk for students.
“It’s a kind of safety net for Hopkins students,” he said. “Even if it does fail, the worst that happens is that you’re still a Hopkins student, so now’s the time to take risks. We’re trying to just encourage that mindset as much as possible.”
Graham said that they expect students to make a non-binding commitment to return to the program and contribute, either financially or with other resources such as mentorship for future student entrepreneurs.
“Students own whatever they create completely,” he said. “We’re taking a huge amount of effort to invest in these students, and so we want to create this virtual cycle where we help a student launch their business, and in the future they want to come back and help other students do the same.”
LaPere said that another student entrepreneurship group would only give students more resources.
However, she added that TCO Labs has an advantage as an undergraduate group, pointing out that FFU is not focused just on Hopkins undergraduates but caters to all students.
“We intimately know the needs of student entrepreneurs,” LaPere said. “It’s that type of intimacy that we’re allotted because we are students and because we work and live within this network that lets us have a stronger access point to the student entrepreneurs than say an administrative initiative.”
Graham said that FFU would work with student groups like TCO Labs to put on programming.
“We’re not trying to own entrepreneurship on campus, just trying to help enhance the ecosystem,” he said. “We’re all in this working together just to make opportunities better for students interested in entrepreneurship.”
Some students, like sophomore Pascal Acree, said they were excited to take advantage of FFU’s free office hours.
“We’re trying to find as many resources as possible to get more information on how to handle the business side of things,” Acree said. “We’re looking for mentorship to try to make that transition from designing and prototyping to actual implementation for our project.”
Junior Brooke Stephanian, the chief operating officer of TCO Labs, said that she hopes FFU’s growth will bring increased undergraduate interest in entrepreneurship.
“The number of student entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial groups has increased, and I’ve noticed that, as TCO has grown, a lot of student groups have begun to reach out to us,” Stephanian said. “With FFU, I think there’s definitely going to be an increased interest in entrepreneurship.”
LaPere said that before programs like FFU and TCO Labs, an emphasis on academics at Hopkins left entrepreneurs more isolated.
She said that FFU sends a message that entrepreneurship is an option for students, who may struggle to balance their time.
“Just the fact that the administration has put focus on entrepreneurship through FastForward U, that’s going to encourage more student entrepreneurship generally, which is good for the entire ecosystem,” she said.