In five words or less, describe ForagerOne.
Technology for research collaboration.
Where did the idea for ForagerOne come from?
ForagerOne started from our own experience as students at JHU. My co-founder, Yash Jain, and I realized firsthand how difficult it was to find out what faculty researchers were working on and whether they’d be open to working with us as students. As we dove deeper into this issue, we learned that the academic research space, at large, was a decentralized world – not only at Johns Hopkins but across all higher-education institutions.
After speaking with hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators across the country, and exploring potential platforms we might be able to bring to Hopkins, we discovered that there wasn’t a good solution for research mentorship and collaboration. From job posting pages to platforms like ResearchGate, existing platforms weren’t really facilitating new research collaborations within universities. That is when we understood there was a fundamental lack in the technology infrastructure at universities and colleges for research connectivity.
How many people are using your platform? How many colleges and universities?
Across our two platforms, Symposium and ForagerOne, we work with over 180 academic institutions and organizations. So far, we’ve had over 350,000 users. It’s so cool to see that something we’ve built is used so heavily. Across the events hosted on our Symposium platform, we’ve had over 35,000 posters and presentations submitted by students and researchers across the world that have received over 75,000 comments.
Can you share an example of a ForagerOne connection success story?
Some of the most interesting connections we’ve seen on ForagerOne are those that have transcended traditional disciplinary silos. For example, we learned that in the first year of our official launch at JHU, there was a faculty member at the School of Medicine who did not speak English as a first language. Her research was pushing the boundaries of her field but she was struggling to get published because her grammar and syntax in her writing were not up to standards for high-impact journals.
Through ForagerOne, that researcher connected with a Writing Seminars student and they worked together to publish a series of papers on her research. It was awesome to hear that a non-science major had co-authorship on a bunch of biology papers. It was also a great reminder that often the best collaborations are those that exist outside of one’s typical circles.
How did Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures and FastForward U help ForagerOne grow?
JHTV and FastForward U have been strong supporters since we came up with the concept our freshman year. Though FastForward U wasn’t established at that time, the student venture support coordinator reached out to us directly once he discovered we were working on the idea. He made sure we knew of the resources and grants available through JHU and recommended we go through JHTV’s I-Corps program. It was through that program that we learned the ropes of customer discovery and validating any assumptions we were making. The mentorship through I-Corps helped us refine our business model and articulate key value propositions that were important to university administrators (our paying customers).
After I-Corps, we were accepted into the Ralph S. O’Connor Entrepreneurship Fellowship program, which gave us the funding to incorporate our company and cover startup expenses. As O’Connor fellows, we were connected with mentors in sales and business development who were sounding boards to help us get to the next stage. FastForward U then made sure we had access to their student entrepreneurship center and were always thoughtful enough to check in, get us in front of university officials to help us secure our first contract, and encourage us to apply to additional funding from the university.
After graduating from Hopkins, we won the Bisciotti Foundation Prize for Student Entrepreneurship, which gave us an injection of non-dilutive capital to build Symposium and led to much of our growth in the last year and a half. Even now, JHTV and FastForward U have connected us to successful entrepreneurs who have provided unique insights and ideas for us to think about as we look to take the company to the next level. We also love that we can start to give back a bit ourselves by helping current student entrepreneurs in their own journey.
What was the biggest change going from a student startup to a “real world” startup?
I think the biggest change was something that parallels becoming a “real-world” adult from a student: self-sustenance. As a student startup, there are tons of resources at your fingertips and also lower expectations (including for yourself) given your age and that you are also managing an academic workload. But once you make the leap to working entirely and solely for your own company, the stakes are raised. Now your quality of life, financial independence and self-image are tied intimately to the ups and downs of your company. We were lucky enough to go through the MassChallenge accelerator and have the support of JHU as well as other entrepreneurs to help us make that transition.
What’s the biggest challenge in starting a company?
I think it was a personal one: Learning how to separate the swings of the company from my mental and physical health. This was especially difficult when I made the leap after graduating and working full-time for ForagerOne. My co-founders were, at that time, either finishing up college or employed and it was the first time in my life all my eggs were in one basket. That scared me, and frankly my emotional well-being was too closely tied to the roller coaster of a ride that every startup faces in the first couple years.
It took a lot of intentional mental and behavioral changes that led me to a point of stability and calm that now allows me to think rationally and critically, especially in difficult situations. That personal growth is undoubtedly one of the best things that has come out of this entire experience so far.
What’s one piece of advice you would give a student who is thinking about forming a startup?
The advice I’d give is the same piece of advice I think many budding entrepreneurs receive at the start of their careers, but it’s worth reiterating: Focus on solving a problem or providing value before you start building a product or service. We spent a year doing customer discovery to understand our potential customers and gain the background knowledge before we felt ready to build. That intentional and dedicated effort has allowed us to maintain a really critical presence and strong relationships in the industry we serve; our customers are often relieved to talk to us compared to other technology providers because we “get it.” We understand, at a deep level, what they are going through and what is important to them, which ultimately helps us provide value and innovate in the space.
Why did you decide to sign the Founders’ Pledge?
I am grateful for all the support we have received from Johns Hopkins and feel strongly about the university’s impact on my life and our company. Signing the Founders’ Pledge was one of the main ways I wanted to appreciate that mutual commitment that I’ve personally and professionally had with JHU. Because of its flexible structure, I also felt that I was committing to something that takes each Founders’ success into consideration without being overbearing.
Where do you see ForagerOne in five years?
In five years, we see ForagerOne at the intersection of industry and academia, not only facilitating connections across institutions but also between industry, government and subject matter experts in academia. With our network of universities and our growing presence in the research space, we feel that we will be uniquely positioned to break down the barriers that currently exist between academia and public and private sectors to create a more collaborative research world.
Click here to learn more about the Founders’ Pledge.