#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Darius Graham, Director of the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What’s your role in the Baltimore startup ecosystem?
I’m the Director of the Social Innovation Lab (SIL) at Johns Hopkins University. SIL is situated within Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), which is the home for intellectual property at the university. JHTV also houses the university’s tech transfer operation, our corporate partnerships team, and the FastForward Innovation Hub. I provide leadership on JHTV’s efforts to support and catalyze student entrepreneurship.
It sounds like Johns Hopkins has taken an active role in fostering innovation in Baltimore. Can you tell us more about what the Social Innovation Lab does?
SIL accelerates ventures that create both change and opportunity in Baltimore, and beyond. Each Fall, we select a cohort of ten ventures. We provide funding, mentorship, office space, and workshops to help these innovative non-profits, mission-driven companies, and disruptive technologies develop and grow into thriving, sustainable organizations that make a measurable impact. SIL places a heavy focus on mentorship and coaching to help ventures meet strategic milestones. Our program is unique in that it is open to anyone in the Baltimore area, not just students at our university.
At SIL, we have three main goals that guide our work: to provide promising, emerging social ventures with the essential resources to help them reach milestones, achieve sustainability, and scale faster; to generously contribute to a collaborative and inclusive social innovation ecosystem in Baltimore; and to retain and grow entrepreneurial talent in Baltimore.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in your ecosystem in the past year?
At Johns Hopkins, we recently opened FastForward 1812, a new innovation hub to support startups. This space has over 23,000 square feet of wet lab, co-working, conference rooms, private offices, and shared amenities for startups. It is a real testament to our belief in the future of innovation as an economic development catalyst.
In the past year, the city of Baltimore has seen an explosion of spaces and services dedicated to supporting startups. To name a few, Impact Hub Baltimore opened last year as a center for social entrepreneurship, Open Works is as a space for local makers and manufacturers, and The Cube is a coworking office dedicated to entrepreneurial moms. The establishment of these spaces has definitely helped to catalyze energy and resources around entrepreneurship in the city.
What is the biggest hurdle that entrepreneurs face in Baltimore?
One of the most difficult challenges that we face here is dispelling the common myths about Baltimore. For people who don’t live in Baltimore, their image of the city is likely driven by television shows or national news coverage that has highlighted negative events in the city’s history. Because of this reputation, entrepreneurs sometimes shy away from launching businesses here or move as they as they begin to grow. The people who live here, though, know that Baltimore is so much more than the city the media portrays it as; and that things like our top-notch cultural institutions, relatively low cost of living, and much more make this a great place live and work.
When it comes to scaling their businesses, there are some entrepreneurs who believe that in order to be successful, they have to move to Boston or San Francisco. For those of us committed to growing our ecosystem, we have to continue to work to ensure that local entrepreneurs have access to capital, affordable office and lab space, and expert mentorship as they grow.
What are the most unique features of your startup community?
First, and most importantly, the startup community here is much more generous than competitive. Within SIL especially, there is a lot of collaboration among venture leaders and a willingness to help each other work through roadblocks and challenges. Second, even beyond SIL, our city’s startup community is very mission-driven. We have a number of edtech and healthcare startups that are building commercial enterprises to tackle large, social issues. In addition to that, many of the entrepreneurs here are driven by the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy in Baltimore.
Are there specific government efforts that have enabled innovation or startup growth in Baltimore?
In Maryland, TEDCO, created by the state legislature, has been a driver in this area with initiatives including:
Maryland Innovation Initiative, which promotes commercialization of research from five Maryland universities via funding awards typically up to $265,000;
The Maryland Venture Fund, an early-stage, evergreen venture capital fund;
The new Minority Business Pre-Seed Fund, which will make investments of up to $40,000 to help minority entrepreneurs take a technology-based idea or concept that represents a viable business opportunity and develop it into a product that can be tested with potential users; and,
The Seed Investment Fund, which typically provides up to $100,000 to support certain types of Maryland companies in their effort to develop and commercialize new technology-based products.
Other statewide policies such as the Biotechnology Investment Incentive Tax Credit and the Cybersecurity Investment Incentive Tax Credit are also examples of specific policies that support startup growth in our region.
If you had one wishlist item for something policy leaders could do to help your startup ecosystem, what would it be?
Policy leaders and government institutions have a unique ability to convene and coordinate. For us, it would be incredibly impactful if policy leaders would use this power to develop a strategic vision for the future of innovation to improve economic development and job creation in Baltimore, as well as the rest of the state. Specifically in Baltimore, officials could use their strength as conveners to establish a coordinating position or entity solely focused on bolstering the ecosystem.
What are some promising startups to watch coming out of Baltimore?
There are many, but a few highlights from the current SIL cohort include:
Intelehealth, is piloting a new telemedicine platform in India to connect rural areas with access to comprehensive, primary healthcare.
Squadz is developing a social activity and venue booking platform that connects individuals who are looking to play pickup sports, while generating revenue for community centers and recreation facilities.
The Whole Teacher, is building a tech-enabled suite of health and wellness services for teachers that helps them reduce burn-out and increase retention.