In the bowels of a building where a long-gone manufacturer once made fine silver, the Johns Hopkins University cultivates fledgling firms.
The FastForward business accelerator is a first for Hopkins, which quietly launched the operation last year and will publicly unveil it Thursday. The move into business incubation is the latest example of the university's effort to remake itself into an entrepreneurial engine — something it has felt pressure to do over the years.
Three startup businesses are in the accelerator now, with about half a dozen more coming later this year and others in talks. The university expects all 16 slots will be full in a year or two.
Hopkins, which licenses its intellectual property to companies around the world, sees the startup assistance as an opportunity to help its research bear commercial fruit — including jobs — close to home.
"Companies tend to stay where they're created," said John N. Fini, director of intellectual property and technology commercialization at Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, which is paying for the new facility. "It's very rare for a company to move."
Maryland has about 30 business incubators, most of which receive some public funding, said Rob Rosenbaum, president and executive director at Maryland's Technology Development Corp., better known as TEDCO.
Hopkins is late to the university incubator party, but it was hardly the last institution in Maryland without one. Rosenbaum can think of five other universities in the state that run incubators. The oldest is the University of Maryland's Technology Advancement Program, created in 1984.
Hopkins conducts more research and development — $2.1 billion in 2011 — than any other U.S. academic institution. But it has lagged in commercialization, and officials have ramped up efforts in that area in recent years.
Kelvin Liu, founder and CEO of biotech firm Circulomics, one of the FastFoward companies, sees a difference since he came to Hopkins in 2004 to get a doctorate in biomedical engineering. Hardly anyone he met there in those days seemed interested in going the startup route — a sharp difference from his experience in California, where he worked for three startups.
"Now," Liu said, "there's more and more of that. I think it's great."
Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said Hopkins will probably make its accelerator a success. But he thinks it might have been better to locate the facility cheek by jowl with the biotech park just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. When it comes to entrepreneurship, he said, you want lots of people working in close proximity so they can spark off one another.
"Location matters," he said.
Rosenbaum, for his part, sees great potential in the accelerator's rapid prototyping capabilities.
"One of the strengths that you have with Hopkins is the biomedical engineering, or more simply put, medical devices — the intersection of their medical school and their engineering school," he said.
Indeed, a medical-device company was the first on board at FastFoward. Clear Guide Medical moved in a year ago, when the space still needed major work and the idea was so new that organizers weren't even promoting it within the university.
The building, on Wyman Park Drive near the university's Homewood campus, was the Stieff Co. factory until it closed in 1999. Remnants of the fine-silver maker still remain as the university converts the basement into offices, labs and other work space.
It's not a window-filled, tech-startup backdrop. The site is zoned industrial. There's a machine shop behind one of the doors, a bio lab behind another and a forklift in the hallway. FastForward staff are in the midst of converting one large space into an area for building "major things," as Fini puts it — the sorts of products that require a crane to move. (The crane's already in place.)
The engineering school has budgeted $1 million a year to operate the facility. Participating companies can stay up to two years, rent-free, in exchange for debt that the university can convert to a stake in each firm down the road. The companies also receive services intended to help speed them toward profitability, such as assistance with business plans and introductions to potential investors.
Firms don't need an engineering-related product to move in, but they must have a Hopkins connection — intellectual property or people.
Clear Guide Medical has both ties. Two Hopkins labs developed the technology the company hopes to take to market next year — an ultrasound guidance device — and the small staff includes Hopkins faculty and graduates.
The company's product clips onto ultrasound imaging devices and guides doctors as they insert a needle into patients for biopsies. Guidance devices are on the market already, but company officials say their technology is much less expensive, takes less time to use and is more portable than the competition.
Clear Guide Medical is tucked into about 2,000 square feet of the accelerator, space that looks quite different now than it did last year.
"When we first saw this, there was this enormous spray booth — a silver spray booth," said Dorothee Heisenberg, the company's chief operating officer. "It is sort of a transformation."