FastForward U

Student entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins is surging, and the amount of interest in Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ (JHTV) FastForward programming is proof.

From 2016 to 2017, applications to the Ralph S. O’Connor Fund and Summer Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Award more than doubled (35 to 75). Furthermore, 2,300 students attended Johns Hopkins entrepreneurial events during the 2016-2017 academic year.

“Demand is multiples of where it was a couple years ago,” JHTV head Christy Wyskiel recently told CNBC in July.

In response to this increasing interest, Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels, Provost Sunil Kumar, deans from each of the schools and senior leadership at JHTV coordinated with student leadership to enhance the university’s support system for students interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. The work relied heavily on focus groups comprised of Johns Hopkins students already involved with the university’s existing programming.

The result is FastForward U, a collaborative, cross-disciplinary environment that acts as a resource for any undergraduate, graduate student or post-doc with a desire to experiment, innovate or start a business.

“Johns Hopkins students are going to start something someday,” Wyskiel says. “FastForward U provides experiential learning opportunities that empower students in their future endeavors — whether that’s starting a small business, technology company, non-profit organization or maybe even, a political campaign.”

Strategic direction

In August, Darius Graham, formerly the director of the Social Innovation Lab, became JHTV’s first-ever director of student ventures. He will have support from Kevin Carter, JHTV’s new student ventures coordinator and a Venture for America fellow. Together, they will build upon the groundwork established by Kasim Ahmad, another Venture for America fellow who served as JHTV’s first student ventures coordinator before taking a position with the Hopkins student-led startup FactoryFour.

“I’ve had the chance to meet undergraduate and graduate students from different programs working on an array of potentially transformative innovations,” Graham says, calling out an African bakery concept, a transportation app and a wireless sensor for monitoring air quality among others. “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to encourage and catalyze students’ work.”

Before FastForward U, JHTV’s student outreach primarily focused on introducing students to the resources that FastForward provided them. Now, in addition to helping students navigate the opportunities at Johns Hopkins, FastForward U is developing longer term strategies that will enhance the university’s innovation ecosystem.

“One of the first things I am focusing on is how we can engage different schools and different programs and root this idea of innovation and entrepreneurship in all students,” Graham says.

With engineering students, opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship may be fairly obvious. But what about the school of education, for example? Graham wants to empower these students to connect their research to technologies or programs that will help students learn or that increase teacher performance.

“No matter the school or department, I want to help students make connections between what they’re studying and the opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation to solve challenges,” Graham says.

FastForward U resources

At the core of FastForward U will be the ample programming that JHTV and student groups across the university have organized, including Medhacks, 3 Day Startup, Pizza and Pitches, HopHacks and I-Corps.

These coordinated seminars, workshops and networking events have offerings for student innovators and entrepreneurs of all experience levels. As part of the learning experience, students will also receive mentorship and direction from the student venture coordinator, mentors-in-residence, alumni entrepreneurs and other advisors.

“These one-to-one interactions are immensely valuable. Students receive answers to specific questions, make connections within the Hopkins ecosystem and receive help identifying key external resources,” Graham says.

“FastForward U’s programming and mentorship give students ample opportunity to fully pursue the development of their innovative ideas.”

Just as FastForward U offers student-specific programming, it will have student-dedicated innovation hubs. In fact, many students and faculty have already begun seeing the recent additions of two student-dedicated innovation hubs.

In April, FastForward U opened its first student-dedicated space, FastForward U – Homewood, at the Wyman Building as a temporary student innovation hub on the Homewood campus. It provides student entrepreneurs with conference, co-working, and private meeting space. In 2018, this space will move to a building on the 300 block of West 29th Street, located across from R. House in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood.

The new space will feature 9,000 square feet dedicated for student entrepreneurs to build their startups. The innovation hub will have conference rooms, co-working desks, open spaces for events and presentations as well as a maker space run by the Whiting School of Engineering.

For those studying on or near Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus, FastForward U – East is now open. This innovation hub located in the Rangos Building near Johns Hopkins’ schools of medicine, nursing and public health will feature 3,200 square feet of office space, including co-working desks, private offices and a conference room.

“Both FastForward U – East and the future home of FastForward U – Homewood in Remington will be located near FastForward 1812 and FastForward R. House, providing opportunities for collisions with more established entrepreneurs that could benefit our students and their promising ventures,” Graham says

Much like the library or student union, these innovation hubs are open to all Johns Hopkins students during daytime hours. In the evening, when official staffing is no longer in place, the hubs will be open to students who have registered with FastForward U.

“As they balance coursework and a budding passion for innovation, it’s important for our student entrepreneurs to have spaces where they can go at any time,” Graham says.

Creating a culture of innovation

JHTV doesn’t see student interest in entrepreneurship as an aberration. In her interview with CNBC, Wyskiel said, “(Students) understand it’s more likely they’ll create their own job than have a job from someone else for a long period of time.”

Graham intends to meet the needs of the growing number of students considering becoming entrepreneurs, helping them build a sustainable business or at least provide the fundamental understanding of how to do so in the future.

“I want students to know that Johns Hopkins wants to help them succeed as innovators and entrepreneurs,” Graham says. “My job is to create a culture among our student body that encourages them to boldly pursue their ideas for creating a better world.”