O’Connor Fund backs campus entrepreneurs

By SAM FOSSUM | September 8, 2016

This semester marks the beginning of the third year for the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund, a Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV) program. Since its first cohort of recipients in 2014 and 2015, the fund has added more mentorship and infrastructural support for budding entrepreneurs.

The Fund provides $5,000-$10,000 in grant money to undergraduates who have a company or project with a clear entrepreneurial focus. The fund was made possible through the generous gift of a Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) alumnus, Ralph S. O’Connor. The awardees receive mentorship, business advice and other support tools to help develop their ideas.

Senior Noah Presler, a founder of Semester.ly, an online course scheduling platform, is one of the startup founders in the O’Connor Fund’s 2015/2016 cohort. He noted that the fund aims to not only promote existing established businesses, but also to help student entrepreneurs regardless of the status of their idea or project.

“The O’Connor fund isn’t just about taking an already flourishing business and helping promote it and helping it to grow. They don’t have this fiduciary duty to institutional investors to make returns. It’s grant money. There is no equity dilution, and that’s attractive,” Presler said. “It’s more about promoting ideas and helping you get your ideas off the ground and show you that even when you are at that early stage you can get support for entrepreneurship at the University.”

Presler highlighted the fund’s structure and networking support as its two most beneficial aspects.

“The structure of it was what was really helpful in addition to the resources that they provide. Basically, we got tons of mentors out of it. We met with some of the biggest leaders in ed-tech and entrepreneurship in the Baltimore area,” Presler said.

Sophomore Parth Singh, a team member of MoTrack Therapy, which integrates hand therapy with motion sensing games, explained in an email to The News-Letter that the program provided free legal counsel, experienced business mentorship and other JHTV resources.

“The O’Connor Fund really takes you under their wing. Before the O’Connor Fund, we didn’t really have anyone to go to for business advice, which is the area we (and most undergraduate entrepreneurs) have the least experience in,” Singh wrote. “That is in many ways more important than the money because having access to information and people helps us build the product that is most likely to be bought.”

According to JHTV’s Student Venture Coordinator Kasim Ahmad, these social resources are crucial for improving the program. He stressed the need to continue improving the structure and support the fund provides for new student entrepreneurs.

“That peer mentorship can be the most valuable learning that you get, and it’s always helpful to talk to a later stage entrepreneur because at one time they were in your situation,” Ahmad said. “I think the teams that were in the earlier stages did look to the other teams to see how they were doing and see how they could connect.”

Ahmad further elaborated on how this year’s recipients would receive greater networking opportunities.

“For this upcoming year, each team will be assigned a core mentor, but we will also try to connect them with other people and organize more networking events and get them even broader access,” Ahmad said.

Shrenik Jain, a team member of Beacon, which is a mobile platform for anonymous group therapy, spoke to the helpfulness of the JHTV’s staff, their fellow cohort peers and the mentorship of the O’Connor Fund.

“We benefitted not only from our assigned mentor, but also other experienced professionals in the Tech Ventures ecosystem, as well as the company of fellow student entrepreneurs in our cohort. While student entrepreneurship at JHU is definitely lagging compared to peer institutions, this grant and program is a step in the right direction,” Jain wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

However, Jain also mentioned that he and his team did experience issues with how the grant money was distributed.

“The only significant issue we really ran into was difficulties in actually obtaining our $10,000. The way the grant was structured meant we either had use the grant only for reimbursements through an academic department, or navigate JHU’s slow and complex vendor system. Since startups develop quickly on very tight timelines, this was a bit of a hassle,” Jain wrote.

In response, Ahmad, stated that he and his team were already taking steps to incorporate the feedback from this year’s cohort.

In a significant change from previous years, the O’Connor Fund will start accepting applications this September and will have the third cohort selected by the end of November. This will prevent past logistical issues since the program used to run through the summer months.

The fund’s most recent cohort of entrepreneurs included six startups: MoTrack, Semester.ly, Beacon, Touch Plus, Brevvite, Proscia. In order to receive funding and support from the O’Connor fund, applicants first fill out a written application and then are interviewed by a committee set up by JHTV.

The first few weeks of this semester offer various opportunities for undergraduate entrepreneurs.

On Sept. 20, TCO Labs will be hosting a Johns Hopkins Entrepreneurship and Innovation Showcase in Hackerman B17. It will feature presentations by student leaders in entrepreneurship and will conclude with a networking session.

Applications for the third cohort of the O’Connor Fund opened on Sept. 1 and will stay open for the remainder of the month.

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