Accelerator aims to turn high-tech ideas into businesses

Johns Hopkins has just unveiled 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 Johns Hopkins campuses into moneymaking ventures. The university's first accelerator is located in the historic Stieff Silver Building 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 onto something here," says FastForward's 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 Johns Hopkins' entrepreneurial spirit."

FastForward equips startups 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 startups' participants will receive coaching for 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 startups 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, chair of the Whiting School's Department of Computer Science, is developing the ultrasound tool with two of his postdoctoral students. They call themselves Clear Guide Medical and expect their device to hit the market early next year. In June, the startup won a Maryland Incubator Company of the Year award.

Of Clear Guide's five-person staff, two moved to Baltimore for their jobs. 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 startup or merely want preparation for the business world. The Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School 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 of the school. "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 was held on June 27 at the accelerator, 810 Wyman Park Drive, for business leaders and potential investors to meet FastForward's leadership team, tour the facility, and get a taste of the innovation already under way.