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Johns Hopkins startups get boost from Microsoft pilot program

Johns Hopkins University opened FastForward in 2017. (The Daly Record / Maximilian Franz)

Johns Hopkins University opened FastForward in 2017. (The Daly Record / Maximilian Franz)

Startups with Johns Hopkins University’s FastForward program for entrepreneurs have received funding, software licenses, support and more from Microsoft as part of a unique pilot program with the technology giant.

The pilot program includes five Johns Hopkins startups receiving funding awards, including two student teams.

“Johns Hopkins has a track record of generating innovations from medical research that can be transformative,” Toni Townes-Whitley, president, U.S. Regulated Industries, for Microsoft, said in a statement. “At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. In this case, we’re focused on helping accelerate the practical applications of work being conducted by Hopkins students and researchers, which has the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of the organization’s patients.”

The awards are part of a wider pilot collaboration between FastForward and Microsoft.

It is the things beyond money that really help the companies out, said Mark VanderZyl, senior operations manager at FastForward. Johns Hopkins is the first university to join with Microsoft on this kind of program, he said.

“There’s a lot more that (Microsoft was) offering to bring to the table that makes the cash like a cherry on the top,” he said. “(Microsoft’s) support, (Microsoft’s) team, the knowledge support, as well as the software license and cloud credits.”

The software license and cloud credits have been a big part of the program. Startups, not just those receiving awards, have been able to receive Microsoft software licenses including Microsoft Office 365. They have also received up to $120,000 in credits for Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing program.

In addition to the support, startups have access to representatives from Microsoft, who hold office hours every other Thursday. The startups can also gain access to the company’s network of people and resources.

“I think it’s nice to have Microsoft in your corner and helping you through that process,” VanderZyl said.

The companies to receive $25,000 through the Microsoft Innovation Acceleration Award grant were: Oncospace, a company using big data in radiation oncology; Renalert, which is developing a real-time monitoring system to help prevent acute kidney injury; and VecTech, which is using surveillance data to fight mosquito-borne diseases.

Two student companies, Graff Golf and Cellular Analysis Technologies, each received $5,000 through the Microsoft Student Acceleration Grant.

Tristan Ford, CEO of VecTech, said Microsoft has been helpful in connecting the company to a variety of resources, especially because VecTech uses cloud computing and machine learning as part of its technology.

“This was kind of a natural area where we could work together,” he said. Microsoft has led in a lot of their cloud computing technology. Microsoft also has a lot of resources as a huge tech company.”

The process of working with Microsoft has been collaborative. VecTech meets with Microsoft’s point person about once a month.

“What they’ve had us do is give them our wish list, or what are all of the goals that we would like to achieve and what are all of the technical challenges that we are trying to solve,” he said.

The funding awarded to the company has been valuable upfront for VecTech. But the value of the partnership in the long term could be even more significant, Ford said.

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