Master of Biotechnology Enterprise and Entrepreneurship student Ashley Crafton got her graduate studies off to a strong start in 2022, applying her coursework and expert feedback to develop a winning biotech startup pitch.
Wrapping up six-years of military service as a labor and delivery nurse stationed in Germany, Ashley Crafton was looking forward to returning home to Idaho in the summer of 2022 and devoting more of her attention to the biotech startup she’d launched three years earlier. The company, Galena Innovations, had shown promise, but Crafton knew that to better grow and guide it, she would need to acquire specialized business knowledge.
“I looked at different master’s programs and the one at Johns Hopkins fit everything I needed,” says Crafton, who in the fall of 2022 enrolled in the Master of Biotechnology Enterprise and Entrepreneurship program offered by Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced Academic Programs. “All the classes were exactly what I wanted, and I could do it on my schedule and my time,” says Crafton, who as a business owner and mother of five valued the ability to take courses online and part time.
For her first semester, Crafton opted to take Foundations in Biology to refresh her science knowledge and Funding a New Venture to help her move forward in bringing her company’s product, the Hannah Cervical Cup, to market. The product, a medical device aimed at preventing preterm birth, had a working prototype and was almost ready to be tested in human subjects, but accomplishing that would require additional funding. “I picked Funding a New Venture in particular because we are raising a seed round,” she says. “So it fit exactly with what we are doing in our business.”
One of the first assignments for the class was to create a pitch deck, a visual presentation and narrative used to spark investor interest. “Of course, I used my own business and my own pitch deck,” Crafton recalls. Along with a high grade on the project, she also got valuable feedback and constructive comments from Rudnick, who designed and teaches the course. Outside of the classroom, Rudnick is an investment manager specializing in the biotechnology and health care space; his initial feedback kicked off a series of conversations about how Crafton could improve her pitch to investors.
“His own business and VC background was really helpful,” says Crafton, who in addition to her coursework was preparing to compete in Boise Entrepreneur Week, an annual competition for early-stage entrepreneurs. “One of the big takeaways I got from the class and from working with Ron was to put myself in investors’ shoes and really think about what they needed to know.”
For Rudnick, providing detailed, actionable feedback is a natural—and fulfilling —part of teaching. “I love teaching at JHU and having an opportunity to make a difference. I’m also super passionate about innovation and biotech, helping students and aspiring entrepreneurs find and develop novel and better ways of improving the world,” he says. For students, getting feedback from an expert is a crucial component of the course, which walks them through everything involved in starting and funding a new venture, from ideation to IPO, and engages them in projects that help them develop a deeper understanding of the process. Often, students incorporate their own existing business into their projects, as Crafton did.
In conversations, including several one-on-one Zoom meetings, Rudnick encouraged Crafton to identify investor concerns and address them upfront, to better define her target market, and to amplify how her product is significantly differentiated from—and even superior to—competitors’ products. “She’s laser focused, bright, really understands the space, really understands the need, and then has the incentive to enroll in a program to take this to the next level, which is awesome,” says Rudnick.
With Rudnick’s input, Crafton refined her pitch, and headed to the Boise Entrepreneur Week competition in early fall 2022, successfully convincing a team of judges to advance her from the semi-finals to the finals. As the final competition approached, Crafton worked more with Professor Rudnick, and with coaches provided by contest administrators, to refine her presentation.
Meanwhile, in class, Crafton continued to develop her entrepreneurial skills. For a group project that involved embarking on designing and developing a simulated IPO ‘RoadShow” investor presentation, Crafton’s group chose to use her product, which allowed her to get valuable input and feedback from fellow students. “It was really nice working with the other students because they offered such a different perspective,” says Crafton. “A lot of them have time at biotech companies and some at VC firms, which is really different from me because I’ve worked as a nurse my whole life.”
By the time she stepped onto the stage for the final competition,
Crafton felt ready. “I think because I had all of this extra help I walked up there scared, but confident,” she says. Her confidence was warranted: Crafton wowed the judges and walked away with the top prize, $50,000 that she plans to put toward the first ready-for-human-use prototype of her product.
As she continues to develop her business, Crafton has a concrete plan for completing her master’s degree. Taking two courses each fall, spring, and summer session, she expects to graduate in 2024. “I have a list of courses that fit with what I’m doing—like clinical research—at the time that I will be doing it,” says Crafton. “That’s the great thing about the program: I can really tailor it to my needs.”