FastForward U student startups discuss their ventures

By DIVA PAREKH | October 31, 2019

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Some FFU teams aim to provide clean water and cancer biopsies to developing countries, while others work on biomedical technology. COURTESY OF KRISTOFER MADU

FastForward U (FFU) announced at the end of September that it had selected 15 student startup teams to participate in a new accelerator program that would guide and fund the groups’ ventures. 

FFU is a Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures initiative that aims to support and promote student entrepreneurs. FFU contractor Pava LaPere, who oversees the accelerator program, explained that FFU hopes to expose students to the different aspects of entrepreneurship.

LaPere, a Class of 2019 alum, explained that the accelerator is an extension of her undergraduate work at The Hatchery, an incubator for students looking to conceptualize their business ideas.

She emphasized that the purpose of the accelerator goes beyond creating ventures, supporting entrepreneurs through nine weeks of programming and mentoring.

LaPere stressed the value of student entrepeneurship. 

“Many students... can feel limited by the narrow band of career options that universities often advertise,” LaPere said. “Entrepreneurship is a way for passionate students to create a career that is centered around doing what they love.”

LaPere added that the accelerator offers students a low-risk environment to explore business ideas before they face the burden of adult responsibilities.

“If a student tries it out but realizes that entrepreneurship isn’t for them, then they at least leave with leaps and bounds more experience and knowledge than can be taught in a classroom alone,” LaPere said.

The accelerator program received 50 total applications, out of which 15 groups were chosen. These groups are divided into two tracks: Spark and Fuel. 

The Spark track is geared toward early-stage student ventures and aims to help students realize their ideas. Ten Spark teams have received $1,000 each to start their businesses. 

The Fuel track, targeted at students looking to develop their existing ventures further, hopes to connect students with investors and help them with the more advanced stages of developing their businesses. Five Fuel teams have received $4,000 each to grow their businesses.

At the end of the semester, FFU will host a Demo Day during which teams can pitch their businesses to judges and audience members. The winning Spark team will receive an additional $1,000, and the winning Fuel team will receive $10,000.

The News-Letter reached out to all 15 student teams as part of a two-week article series on the accelerator program. This article will feature the Fuel teams, while the Spark teams will be featured in next week’s issue. 

Braegen

Braegen aims to improve the treatment that patients with chronic brain diseases receive. As of today, researchers working on treatments for these diseases have struggled to find ways to administer medicine directly into the brain, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. Braegen, however, is developing the first implantable device that can deliver medicine past the blood-brain barrier and directly into the brain.

Led by junior Deborah Weidman, the team also includes junior Angela Lu, senior Caterina Esposito, senior John Cai, senior Justin Kim, senior Cole Clampffer and graduate student Alireza Chamani.

In a standard neurosurgical operation, tumors are carefully cut away from the brain. Braegan hopes that in the future, surgeons will then insert — in place of the tumor — their proprietary device, Weidman explained, which will deliver medicine more efficiently and improve life expectancy and quality of life for recovering patients.

Kim explained that this medical delivery system could also help reduce the chance that tumors recur. Weidman noted that while Braegen is currently targeting patients with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the applications of their device can expand to various different kinds of neuropathologies.

She added that GBM, the most deadly form of brain cancer, is the disease that killed U.S. Senator John McCain.

“Money wasn’t an object to [McCain]. Networks, connections, that wasn’t an object to him. Yet, he also passed away with the exact same roughly 14 month life expectancy after diagnosis,” Weidman said. “There is this fundamental challenge that there is no way to deliver treatments across the blood-brain barrier on a chronic level. So we’re hoping to change that.”

Cai explained that because this product is so novel, it has been challenging for the Braegen team to start completely from scratch and conceptualize the technology from the bottom-up. 

Lu, however, felt that this was what made their project exciting. 

“It also gives us the most freedom to pursue things that we think might change the field,” she said. “Nobody’s done this before. There’s no standard set.”

Weidman explained that Braegen hopes to complete a fully functional prototype by December and begin testing it in the spring and summer of 2020. 

As of now, she added, Braegen has raised $55,000, which has been their biggest milestone so far. Their first funder, however, was FFU.

“It was like $500, but to us at the time, it was the first drop in a hopefully very large bucket,” Lu said.

CortiTech

Like Braegen, CortiTech also aims to help neurosurgeons better serve their patients. They plan on using Radiex, a product they created that helps neurosurgeons better access deep lesions in the brain. 

The team consists of senior Sun Jay Yoo and juniors Jody Mou, Mark Shifman and Kevin Tu.

Yoo, the team lead, noted that neurosurgery can often be very risky. 

Currently, he explained, neurosurgeons who want to access lesions that are four or five centimeters below the base of the skull must perform a craniotomy. 

They open up the skull and use metal retractors to push away brain tissue to access the lesions. 

He added that this can compress blood tissue and stretch neurons until they break, which is why CortiTech wanted to work on a minimally invasive way to reach lesions at that depth. 

Radiex, Yoo elaborated, essentially consists of an image-guided catheter that has a balloon attached to the end. 

After it enters the brain, the balloon expands and a sheath is slid into its place, giving surgeons a corridor to access deep lesions, interfering much less with brain tissue than current retractors.

Yoo explained that the CortiTech team started by simply talking to neurosurgeons and trying to identify problems that they faced. 

Once they had an idea, the team evaluated clinical needs, modifying their idea based upon these. 

Now they are working on refining their product for the market and developing a fully functioning prototype.

He added that, while neurosurgeons are perceived as averse to new technology, the CortiTech team found that this was not the case with the surgeons they talked to.

“We’re doing a lot of these interviews and going to surgeries and shadowing and trying to talk to whoever’s there,” Yoo said. “When you’re in surgery, asking them these very relevant questions, you can see neurosurgeons pique their excitement and ask you questions and [lend you] their expertise… that really changed my view of the whole industry.”

Shifman added that what drove him was how solvable the problem CortiTech addresses was. 

“It seemed like a problem that should have been solved already, by today’s standards of technology,” Shifman said. “And as soon as I saw that that didn’t seem to be the case, I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity.’”

Now, CortiTech is working on connected with potential investors, something that Tu felt that the Fuel program has helped considerably with.

“We’ve actually been connected to Hopkins alums who do work in the health care/investment banking space,” he said. “The connections and the lessons from other people in the field have been really helpful.”

Ithemba

Like both CortiTech and Braegen, Ithemba is a group also working toward addressing a gap in the medical system. 

Led by junior Sophia Triantis and senior Valerie Zawicki, Ithemba is working on making breast cancer diagnosis tools more accessible globally. 

The team also includes juniors Madeline Lee and Laura Hinson.

Triantis explained that the team is working on creating a reusable contamination-free core needle breast biopsy device. Though the needles are disposable, she emphasized that the device itself is reusable, which makes the upfront cost for the product a lot cheaper than current products used to test for breast cancer.

Zawicki added that the cleaning process for Ithemba’s device is also a lot easier than other devices on the market today, which would make it particularly useful for hospitals in lower-income areas.

“If a clinic or regional hospital is only able to afford one device and this cleaning procedure can take anywhere from a couple of hours to 24 hours, that then limits the number of patients that the clinic is able to see,” Zawicki said. 

Though the group already has a 3D-printed version of the needle, they are working on developing a prototype based on feedback gathered from 150 people both in the U.S. and across the world. Within the next year or two, they aim to secure FDA approval, after which they will be able to move forward with licensing their device. 

While traveling around the world to gather feedback from various people including radiologists in the U.S., surgeons in low-resource settings and nurses in South Africa, Triantis explained that she and Zawicki truly began to realize the impact they could have. 

“When you’re working on an engineering problem, it’s easy to get really caught up in a lot of the technical challenges, but being consistently reminded of the impact we could have is something that motivates all of us,” Triantis said.

She added that though there is already technology that performs the same function as Ithemba’s device, there remains a gap in its accessibility because people don’t tend to engineer such devices with low-resource settings in mind. To Triantis, bridging this gap has the potential to save lives.

Zawicki agreed, adding that this project also had personal significance to her.

“My mom’s a breast cancer survivor. I knew coming to college that I wanted to make innovations in the health-care space and this was a project that had a personal touch to it,” Zawicki said. “Ithemba means hope in Zulu, and we aim to give all women hope for a chance to fight breast cancer.”

Aquatas

Like Ithemba, Aquatas is a group working to address a global issue — that of the shortage of clean water in developing areas. Aquatas is comprised of senior team leads Paarth Sharma and Anish Mokha and senior team members Maya Foster, Shivam Rastogi, Varun Venkatesh and Zachary Schmidt.

They aim to create an accessible water purification system to improve overall health in low-income areas. While other purification systems do exist, Sharma explained that they tend to focus more on bacteria. However, because of climate change and industrial malpractice, heavy metals are also major water contaminants, which Aquatas will also filter out.

The team uses reverse osmosis technology, which ordinarily uses a significant amount of power and electricity, which in turn increases its cost. 

Sharma noted, however, that Aquatas’ technology implements reverse osmosis with minimal electricity, making it cheaper and more user-friendly. He explained that their product will involve a hand pump system the size of a small trash can, which can manually purify water from any source.

Venkatesh explained that a major driving force for the project was the theory that lack of access to clean water contributes to poverty and takes opportunities away from members of low-income communities. 

The Aquatas team interviewed doctors in South Africa and Ethiopia to understand the problems associated with clean water availability. Sharma added that it was important for Aquatas to create a product that would allow communities to grow in the long term instead of simply handing them a short-term solution.

Foster added that, as a neuroscience major, she also hopes that the product will be able to combat neurological disorders by filtering out heavy metals, which can be highly neurotoxic. 

“Clean water is something I take for granted and don’t even really think about. But for many families, drinkable water is a huge concern,” she said.

The Aquatas team consists of seniors who started working on the idea their sophomore year. Already having secured a patent, they are currently conducting a three-month pilot study among 10 families, and they aim to start manufacturing by the beginning of 2020. Next, they plan on doing a long-term study to measure the impact of the device, which they hope will give them the momentum to enter it into the market.

“We started building this in our dorm room in Commons,” Sharma said. “We had a very basic concept, but Hopkins and FFU saw its possibility and potential and started helping us out from more on the business side to teach us what else we need to know to make this a reality.”

First Friday’s Group

The First Friday’s Group (1FG), on the other hand, has a more local focus. They aim to connect college communities in urban areas by providing young people with creative passions with the financial resources to pursue their passions. 

1FG aims to provide these students and youths with one-on-one training and mentorship in various performance arts, after which they organize large-scale social events at which these individuals can perform. In an email to The News-Letter, the group discussed their initiative.

Led by junior Kristofer Madu, the group consists of 10 total members, making it the largest group participating in the FFU accelerator program. 

Its members include seniors Sindhu Banerjee and Christopher Domalewski, juniors Jeanne Kachris, Naushil Mehta and Amadea Smith, sophomores Amanda English and Duncan Parke and freshmen Omar Aly and Katia Kovrizhkin.

Smith appreciated that 1FG’s model, though currently Hopkins and Baltimore-specific, could be applied to college campuses and cities across the country. 

“What interests me most about 1FG is the company’s commitment to bringing together musicians, artists, and people with diverse backgrounds and interests in an effort to foster a sense of community built upon a shared love of music and camaraderie,” she wrote.

Parke, who is a Baltimore resident, agreed, adding that 1FG’s current mission is to strengthen the Baltimore and Maryland collegetown network.

He observed that in Baltimore, schools like Hopkins and Loyola University Maryland feel like separate worlds within the city. 1FG, he explained, can help bridge this divide by encouraging college students to leave campus and enjoy the local nightlife.

“Bringing local talent to our events alongside college performers mixes two previously separate demographics through a vector everyone can enjoy: dancing, music and socialization,” Parke said.

Madu emphasized that 1FG also hopes to break down the barriers that college students and youth from low-income areas face when trying to express their creativity. 

“Many of us have always wanted to take up a hobby like DJing or rapping — but the question is always, ‘How would I find the time?’ ‘Where would I even start?’ ‘Who would even listen?’” he wrote. “We provide an answer to all three questions, as we train and mentor our performers free of charge, and we give them the platform to perform in front of hundreds of their peers.”

Rudy Malcom contributed reporting.

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