New campus accelerator aims to turn high-tech ideas into businesses

FastForward equips JHU start-ups with rent-deferred office space and top-of-the-line equipment, and helps them launch businesses

The Johns Hopkins University is set to unveil FastForward, a groundbreaking business accelerator that promises to spark cutting-edge technology companies and then keep them in the city to bolster the local economy.

The university's Whiting School of Engineering launched FastForward to help turn the best ideas born on campus into moneymaking ventures. The university's first accelerator is located in the historic Stieff Silver building on the north side of Baltimore near the Homewood campus. Four fledgling companies have already moved into the building and another four are expected to join them over the next six months. At capacity the facility will hold 16 companies.

"Given the interest we're already seeing, we're really on to something here," said FastForward Director John Fini, who also oversees the Homewood Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Commercialization. "It's already growing very, very fast. And that says something about of Johns Hopkins' entrepreneurial spirit."

FastForward equips start-ups with rent-deferred office space in the Stieff Silver building where they have access to a shared laboratory with top-of-the-line equipment and a machine shop to construct prototypes. Even more critically, the accelerator's team of business experts helps academics, perhaps more comfortable in a lab, navigate the intricacies of launching a business. The start-ups will receive coaching with everything from writing a business plan to applying for patents to finding potential investors.

"It's very difficult for a single faculty member to work through this themselves," Fini says. "We're here to help in every way possible to make sure that a company is a success."

As the name FastForward implies, these companies are expected to get off the ground quickly. The start-ups can stay in the accelerator for no longer than two years.

Inventions being refined through FastForward include technology for detecting single strands of DNA, cancer testing kits and a computerized probe that greatly simplifies ultrasound-guided biopsies.

Gregory D. Hager, chairman of the Department of Computer Science in the Whiting School of Engineering, is developing the ultrasound tool with a former post-doctoral student, Philipp Stolka, and Emad M. Boctor, an assistant professor in Radiology and the director of the Medical UltraSound Imaging and Intervention Collaboration research laboratory. They call themselves Clear Guide Medical and expect their device to hit the market early next year. In June, the start-up won a Maryland Incubator Company of the Year award.

Of Clear Guide's five-person staff, two moved to Baltimore for the job. Hager knows the accelerator will help recruit even more top researchers to Johns Hopkins – and keep them in Baltimore.

"It does add a bit of magnetic pull," he says.

Starting this fall, Johns Hopkins will also offer a series of classes to help students understand the fundamentals of business – whether they are considering launching a start-up or merely want preparation for the business world. The Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School of Engineering is developing the courses. Experts from the center will conduct workshops in the accelerator and offer the tenants one-on-one coaching.

"The launch of FastForward ushers in a new era for the Whiting School," says Nicholas P. Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean. "We are looking forward to working with our local community and business partners to get our promising technologies out to the marketplace as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is our hope that this technology accelerator will help spur economic development, not just in the city of Baltimore, but across the entire region."

A grand opening celebration for FastForward will be held from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 27 at the accelerator, 810 Wyman Park Drive. Business leaders and potential investors will meet FastForward's leadership team, tour the facility and get a taste of the innovation already underway.