Tag: O’Connor Fund

FastForward U

4 Undergraduate-Led Startups Receive Grants from O’Connor Fund

4 Undergraduate-Led Startups Receive Grants from O’Connor Fund

(Courtesy FastForward U)

Four undergraduate-student-led startups will receive up to $10,000 in grant funding through Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ FastFoward U to pursue their business ideas, which range from safer in-home dialysis and bottled bubble tea.

Aquatas, Goba Tea, Relavo and Straythink were recently named as awardees of The Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund, which supports undergraduate entrepreneurs. The startups also will have access to mentorship from investors and serial entrepreneurs and additional resources from FastForward U and JHTV.

FastForward U received 31 applications for the fund, made possible by a donation from John Hopkins alumnus Ralph S. O’Connor and his wife, Becky. Now in its fifth year, the O’Connor Fund has supported nearly two-dozen student teams.

“This was an extremely competitive funding cycle with numerous standout applications,” said Kerrie Carden, FastForward U’s director of student ventures. “We had more qualified teams than awards to give out, which is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Hopkins undergrads.”

Kevin Carter, student venture coordinator for FastForward U, said the applications “highlight the breadth of innovation coming from Hopkins undergrads.”

“From medical devices to virtual reality to cryptocurrency to consumer goods, it’s all incredibly impressive,” he said.

Members of the 2018-2019 cohort met for an orientation dinner Nov. 29.


The team: Anish Mokha (KSAS ’20), Maya Foster (KSAS ’20), Varun Venkatesh (WSE ’20), Shivam Rastogi (WSE ’20), Zach Schmidt (WSE ’20) and Paarth Sharma (WSE ’20)

The product: An efficient and affordable water purification system for use in developing regions around the world.

Many water purification products on the market fail to filter out metal contaminants and salts, have low water output, require an external power source or are too expensive. Aquatas’ purification device is manually powered and can produce as much as a liter of water in three-and-a-half minutes. The device can be used by children or seniors, weighs 25 pounds and is the size of a small household trash can. It lasts up to 16 months and costs around $65 using readily available parts.

Aquatas’ prototype achieved a rejection rate of nearly 98 percent, and the company is working on pilot testing next spring in the hopes of making its first sales through a community center in Kenya.

Goba Tea

The team: Byron D’Mello (KSAS ’20), Noah Doris (Babson College)

The product: The first bottled bubble tea, infused with stress-reducing vitamins, for busy and stressed college students.

Self-described “bubble tea fanatics,” D’Mello and Doris fell in love with the drink as freshmen but saw fellow students driving up to a half-hour away for the tea, which must be sipped immediately.

D’Mello and Doris have been making their own bubble tea and selling it for a year-and-a-half at farmers’ markets and festivals. In the spring, they ran a two-month pilot program at Hopkins; after initially selling 270 bottles per week, they upped their supply to 350 bottles. Goba Tea is now available at 10 retail locations in Maryland, California, Florida and Massachusetts. Goba Tea signed contracts with four other universities over the summer and has received FDA approval for the beverage.

Goba Tea wants to do for bottled tea what Naked did for smoothies – bring the drink to the consumer rather than vice versa. The company is targeting universities and focusing sales at or near colleges, much like Insomnia Cookies.


The team: Sarah Lee (WSE ’19), James Qin (WSE ’19), Anna Bailey (WSE ’19), Tejasvi Desai (WSE ’21), Eugene Oh (WSE ’21) and Giang Hoang (WSE ’21)

The product: The PeritoneX, a disinfection device that reduces the risk of infection during home peritoneal dialysis treatment.

More than 600,000 Americans are living with kidney failure, most of whom rely on hemodialysis, where the blood is taken out of the body to be cleaned. But more patients – currently 9 percent and growing – use peritoneal dialysis, where the blood is cleaned nightly inside the body by a solution administered via a catheter through the lining of the abdomen. While PD has been found to give patients a better quality of life than blood dialysis, because patients administer the dialysis to themselves, there is a higher risk of contamination of the tube ends during setup. The resulting infection, called peritonitis, occurs in 1-in-4 patients, requires hospitalization 60 percent of the time and is a primary factor in 1-in-6 PD patient deaths.

The PeritoneX aims to reduce touch contamination by disinfecting potentially contaminated PD connection points after connections have been made but before the initiation of dialysis treatment. The PeritoneX is small, affordable and disposable.

Dr. Alicia Neu, chief of pediatric nephrology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, serves as Relavo’s clinical sponsor.


The team: Nikhil Baddam (KSAS ’21) and Owen Friesen (KSAS ’21)

The product: Haptic feedback gloves that make virtual reality more immersive.

Straythink wants to make touch come alive in what is often only an audiovisual virtual reality experience. VR gloves now in the marketplace use vibrations to stimulate the hand encountering an object. The glove being developed by Straythink, by contrast, uses selectiv stiffening rigidity, meaning the stiffness of the glove changes as the user “touches” objects.

More accurate touch in VR systems could be used by surgeons, soldiers and others who need to practice physically precise tasks.

Thanks in part to a Spark grant from FastForward U and a Digital daVinci Award from the Digital Media Center, Straythink was able to develop a single-finger prototyp, Straythink was able to develop a single-finger prototype of the glove earlier this year.

Click here to learn more about the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund!


Summer Award Winner: Weel Working to Solve Major E-Commerce…

Summer Award Winner: Weel May Solve Major E-Commerce Conundrum

Mobile users accounted for more than half of Internet traffic in 2017, yet retail purchases from mobile devices resulted in less than 25 percent of e-commerce spend. So, why are consumers reluctant to buy on their smartphones and tablets? Eyan Goldman has answers.

“Most e-commerce vendors don’t want to spend the money to develop and maintain an app which people may not adopt,” the rising sophomore at Johns Hopkins University says. “Additionally, e-commerce hasn’t yet integrated a social experience like what is traditionally found in retail shopping.”

The solution, Goldman believes, is a social platform known as Weel that transforms how shoppers interact with websites and enables them to easily connect with friends. Weel’s progress and potential earned it FastForward U’s third-ever Summer Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Award.

“Eyan and the Weel team demonstrated uncommon dedication, as well as a comprehensive understanding of their product’s marketability and the next steps in its development,” says Darius Graham, Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ director of student ventures. “We’re excited to see how much progress the team will make over the summer.”

Weel’s platform — which Goldman, a computer science major, is developing with Cal Lavicka, a high school friend currently studying at Carnegie Mellon University, and Johns Hopkins classmates — uses an intelligent layout system that simplifies the user interface of e-commerce webpages to make browsing, shopping and purchasing on websites much simpler.

A social component of Weel enables shoppers to elicit peer feedback simply by pressing and swiping the image of a product to a Facebook friend. This action seamlessly sends all of the product’s data to the friend who can weigh in before a user makes a purchase.

“Our platform transforms the way users interact with retail websites,” Goldman says. “Weel is designed to work on any website instantaneously as our technology does not require the consent of the host website.”

Weel plans to roll out a beta of its platform for iPhones this summer and to have a full launch in early 2019. (Those interested in participating in the beta can contact Weel at beta@joinweel.com.)

To monetize the platform, Goldman plans to engage brands and provide them opportunities to show Weel users products similar to what they share with friends. When a user purchases one of the suggested products, Weel would receive a portion of each sale.

“With Weel, brands don’t have to fear being hurt by having an online ad placed on a website with which they’d prefer not to associate,” Goldman says of his platform’s advantage. “Additionally, brands also have the opportunity to advertise directly to someone who they know is interested in a similar product.”

The Summer Award, funded by an anonymous Johns Hopkins University alumnus, provides Weel with $10,000, a space to work for the summer and mentorship from the FastForward U team and the Summer Award donor.

Weel will use the funding to cover Lavicka’s rent in Baltimore as well as bring on two interns who can develop the platform’s user interface. Without the award, Goldman says, the team would have had trouble making progress in June, July and August. Goldman and Lavicka live in New York City, but the city would have made getting space and talent cost-prohibitive.

The value and opportunity of the Summer Award has made it highly sought after among Johns Hopkins’ student ventures. This year, 14 highly qualified teams applied for the award.

“We were really impressed with the applicant pool for this year’s Summer Award as it represented the most advanced undergraduate startups at Hopkins,” Graham says.

Receiving the Summer Award is just the latest support Weel has received from FastForward U. Last fall, the group filled out FastForward U’s general interest form to better understand the resources and support it could provide. Shortly thereafter, Weel was named to the 2017-2018 Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund cohort and received additional mentorship and guidance.

“FastForward U has been unbelievably helpful,” Goldman says. “We definitely wouldn’t be as far along as we are today without them.”

Weel is the third team to win the Summer Award. The first two teams, FactoryFour and MoTrack Therapy, have used the funding and mentorship the award provides to advance their companies.

FactoryFour, known as Fusiform when they received the award in 2016, has moved into its own space in Mount Vernon, added clients and was recently named to Technical.ly Baltimore’s realLIST as it develops a solution for digital fabrication.
MoTrack Therapy, last year’s Summer Award winner currently developing a platform for better at-home injury rehabilitation, was recently recognized as a finalist at Baylor University’s New Venture Competition and won $1,500.

Goldman believes Weel can follow in the footsteps of those two budding ventures.

“My dream for Weel is to have it become a really popular and useful resource for people,” Goldman says. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that there was at least a shot at that.”

Learn more about FastForward U!


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