Johns Hopkins University’s Social Innovations Lab Helps Emerging Social Ventures Make A Change
A vending machine for breast pumping supplies, an anonymous group therapy app and a mobile booking platform for pickup sports enthusiasts. These are just a few of the ventures working their way through the Social Innovations Lab (SIL), an accelerator program for social innovation and entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins University.
Founded in 2011 by a group of graduate students, SIL started as a support network for students and faculty interested in starting businesses and projects with positive social impact. The program, which focuses on stimulating the growth and development of its members’ ventures, now operates as part of the university’s intellectual property administration center, known as Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures.
May of 2014, the University hired Darius Graham as SIL’s first full-time staff director. Graham, who got his start as an attorney at a large Washington, D.C., law firm, was tasked with transitioning the program from a student organization to a university-wide initiative. His second charge was to ensure that SIL had a palpable impact in the community.
“We really see ourselves as not just helping startups or new businesses or inventions for the market, but also making sure that it’s meaningful for people in Baltimore,” Graham says of the program. To that end, in 2015, the University made the decision to open the program to anyone in Baltimore.
From August to September, interested parties can apply via a 12-part online questionnaire. At the start of each academic year, 10 new ventures and startups are selected from the pool of applicants to take part in the program.
“We ask things like who is on your team, why you are the right folks to implement this idea or to build this business, what accomplishment or impact you’ve had to date, how you will collaborate with existing organizations to really amplify your impact, and how will you be financially sustainable beyond grants and donations,” says Graham.
Last fall, the program had 53 applicants, about half of which came from the Baltimore community. The 2016/2017 cohort is made up of four teams from the Baltimore community (double the number from the previous cycle) and six teams from within Johns Hopkins.
SIL provides participating teams with seed funding; office space; workshops, trainings and weekly sessions; and mentorship. It’s that fourth piece, Graham says, that’s key. In addition to weekly coaching sessions with Graham to work on setting and reaching milestones, teams have access to two peer advisors from the Maryland College of Art’s social design masters program and what SIL calls “innovators-in-residence.”
Among them are Sarah Hemminger, founder of Thread, a volunteer mentoring program for disenfranchised high school students; Rahama Wright, who started Shea Yeleen International, which works with women’s cooperatives in West Africa to produce, market and distribute shea butter cosmetics; Adrian Bordone, co-founder of performance management software company Social Solutions, who is now at Guidestar as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships; and the United States Department of Labor’s first chief innovation officer, Xavier Hughes.
“These are people who have built, from the ground up, award-winning, successful, sustainable social impact businesses or projects,” Graham explains. “They hold monthly office hours for the teams, make introductions for them, and provide expert level, inside expertise.”
New this cycle is the so-called “Neighbor-In-Residence,” a mentor dedicated specifically to facilitating connections within Baltimore. Occupying that role is Nan Rohrer, bringing with her experience in the mayor’s office, the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. According to Graham, eight out of the 10 teams in the 2016/2017 cohort have a Baltimore focus.
Another crucial factor is funding. Since 2011, SIL ventures have secured more than $13 million. Most of the funding provided by the program itself comes from the University. Recently, however, SIL has been looking into additional funding opportunities. Last October, SIL received a generous contribution from the T. Rowe Price Foundation. The following month, the program was awarded $100,000 from the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC).
SIL was one of seven organizations recognized by the BDC, as much a “validation for the work we’re doing and the impact it’s having locally and regionally,” as a boost in funding available to its ventures, Graham says.
Graham says the majority of the money will go to funding the teams in the program. In compliance with BDC requirements, 35 percent of the money awarded is reserved for women- and minority-owned businesses. Ninety percent of the ventures in the current cohort are led by women and people of color.
Successful ventures to come out of SIL include Callisto, a web platform for sexual assault survivors and The Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens (MERIT), a medical education and mentoring program for Baltimore youth. All told, SIL-supported ventures have created 269 jobs, mobilized 925 volunteers and touched 268,131 lives.
the past three years, Graham has observed that the teams getting the most out of the program were in what he calls the “post-idea, but pre-launch” stage. This past cycle, only applicants past the idea stage were considered for the program.
“There are so many people in Baltimore who have ideas, but may not know where to go for feedback or help on how to move the idea forward,” Graham says. So in October of last year, SIL held its first bootcamp dedicated to taking an idea and making it actionable. The goal is for participants to leave equipped with everything they need to apply for the program.
Graham also wants to work with SIL on providing additional support to teams once they’ve left the program. The reality is that success is never permanent for these types of organizations. “So, I want to make sure that we can always be a resource, always provide the mentorship, maybe even always provide them funding in the future to help them remain successful,” he says. I95