Student entrepreneurial space will open in Remington

By TRISHA PARAYIL | September 13, 2018

FastForward U will host the grand opening of its Homewood innovation hub on Friday, Sept. 14. The space is dedicated to furthering student entrepreneurship across all nine Hopkins campuses.

FastForward is a division of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), which provides resources to support the transition of startups from the development stage to the marketplace. FastForward U Homewood is one of two innovation labs under FastForward. The other entrepreneurial lab is FastForward East, located at the East Baltimore Campus. 

FastForward U Homewood is a 10,000 square foot space located in Remington across from R. House, an upscale food hall. It includes 40 co-working desks, five conference rooms, a hardware lab, storage lockers and a 2,000 square foot makerspace run by the Whiting School of Engineering.

According to Director of Student Ventures of FastForward U Kerrie Carden, one of the advantages of the space is that it provides a centralized location for like-minded individuals to meet and collaborate.

“A med student who is working on a business may bump into a student from Carey [Business School] who is interested in what the med student is working on. Those chance interactions are powerful in creating strong teams,” Carden said.

Rutvi Shah, a Master’s student who founded two companies, BlindSide and Quira, with FastForward U’s support, also believes that an important function of the space is to form connections with other student entrepreneurs.

“I don’t have a tech background, so I can’t build a website or an app by myself. I am always looking for someone who is interested in entrepreneurship and being a part of my team over the long term,” she said. “I know that the students who will go to the new space are seriously interested in entrepreneurship.”

Hopkins constructed the space in response to student demand. Pava LaPere and Anthony Garay, co-founders of Think, Create, Organize (TCO) Labs, along with Anna Du, a recent graduate, submitted a proposal for establishing an entrepreneurial space at Homewood two years ago. The proposal outlined the need for a space, what resources should be provided, examples of entrepreneurial spaces at other universities and student testimonials.

According to LaPere, the authors of the proposal had low expectations for the space.

“When we originally wrote this proposal, we were going to be so thrilled if they emptied out some classroom in the basement of Maryland that nobody wanted. We just wanted a space where student entrepreneurs could go,” LaPere said.

A few weeks after submitting the proposal, administrators expressed their interest in constructing a new space. At a subsequent meeting with Provost Sunil Kumar, JHTV, alumni entrepreneurs and the TCO Labs co-founders discussed specifications for the space. 

JHTV’s previous Student Venture Coordinator Kasim Ahmad and the authors of the original proposal submitted a follow-up proposal in January 2017 which outlined necessary features and suggestions for furnishings and a makerspace. A few months later, Hopkins began construction of FastForward U Homewood.

“It is beyond our wildest dreams. And it would not have been possible without the support of JHTV and FastFoward U,” LaPere said.

TCO Labs plans to use the space for meetings and events.

“We like the space so much that we are probably going to spend all our time there. It is going to be like the new Brody for us,” Garay said.

Before the FastForward U division was created, Ahmad was the sole point of contact for student entrepreneurs. 

When FastForward U launched a little over a year ago, it was staffed with a team dedicated to assisting student entrepreneurs. FastForward U hosts events for students to voice their ideas and also offers funding for student entrepreneurs.

Several events FastForward U hosts are Pitch Nights, where students can talk about their ideas in front of their peers, and Innovation Conversations, which facilitate dialogue between students. 

Alumni entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, managers in companies who promote innovation, also attend these events to interact with Hopkins students.

Prospective student entrepreneurs can attend the “Intro to Entrepreneurship: Where and How to Begin” workshop, which is a one-hour overview of turning ideas into businesses. 

Mentors with expertise in particular areas offer office hours to answer questions and discuss ideas with individuals or teams of entrepreneurs. After attending the “Intro to Entrepreneurship” workshop, students across all nine schools can apply for a Spark Grant which awards between $500 and $1,000.

There are two undergraduate-only awards. The Summer Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Award and the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund each award up to $10,000. FastForward U recently added a new scholarship, the Bisciotti Foundation Translational Fund, which is open to undergraduates, graduates and alumni who have graduated within the last three years. The first-place prize is $30,000 and the second-place prize is $20,000. 

Carden explained that FastForward U also offers Spark Grants, which are awarded to students for their start-up ideas. Spark Grants are intended to encourage students to build prototypes and create pilot projects.

“The Spark Grant is for an idea. It is a little bit of capital for students to work on an idea that they feel passionate about,” Carden said.

In March, James Shamul received a Spark Grant for his idea, Rume, LLC, while he was a graduate student studying Engineering Management. Rume uses motion sensing technology and a mobile application to provide real-time information about room occupancy to help students find a place on campus to study or hold a club meeting. The third prototype of the product will be tested in the coming months.

“For any company, when you are in the idea phase before you start development, it is hard to convince people that you have a good, solid solution to a problem that people care about. The Spark Grant gave us the platform to move ahead,” Shamul said.

Shamul believes that FastFoward U Homewood will be useful as the team continues to improve their product.

“We used the temporary FastFoward U space in the Wyman Park Building in the first year of development. The new location is convenient for the undergraduate engineers on our team to continue research and development” he said.

Junior Paarth Sharma was awarded a Spark Grant for Aquatas, a prototype for a water purification system. He had an ongoing relationship with JHTV and FastForward U throughout the development process. He appreciates that FastForward U Homewood is open to students of all disciplines.

“When we started building the prototype, we could only go to spaces on campus that had restricted access to certain majors. Although our team had students from the School of Arts and Science, they weren’t able to go to certain machine shops. The new space has no restrictions; it’s a space for all student entrepreneurs,” Sharma said.

As FastForward U continues to grow, Carden wants to help students attain entrepreneurship experiences that are meaningful to them.

“Entrepreneurship is less of a title or a job and more of a mindset. It may not look like founding a startup, it may look like starting a political movement, opening a small business or just solving problems in day-to-day life,” Carden said.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.