For years, shoppers at art shows told Tim Trost, the Goodhue County artist known for his evocative illustrations of food and nature, that his cards stimulated recollections from their past.

Trost began to wonder if there was some potential business in selling his artwork to caregivers and residential facilities that help people struggling with dementia. “It came to me that this could be a product that would aid professionals in the long-term care area, not just locally or regionally but nationally and beyond,” Trost said.

For help, he turned to a fairly new program at the University of Minnesota that turns students from a broad variety of disciplines into McKinsey-like business consultants at no cost to the firms they help.

Nineteen businesses — from start-ups to giants like Ecolab — have participated in what’s called the Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program since its inception last year. Tech and medical start-ups have dominated, but individual entrepreneurs like Trost can also seek help.

The program emerged from the U’s Office of University Economic Development, which in 2014 began looking for ways to help local businesses grow. “We would go and talk to businesses and try to find out what they wanted from the University of Minnesota,” said Tim Tripp, assistant director of the office. “Workforce was one of the top issues.”

Each semester, five businesses are chosen and their projects are assigned to teams of five or six students. The team leaders receive a small stipend while the rest are volunteers.

This spring, the program had nearly 15 businesses apply for the five spots and more than 80 applicants from students to participate. The leaders came from disciplines as varied as neuroscience and pharmacology.

At the end of each term, Tripp surveys participating businesses to gauge what they got out of the program. “We ask the businesses, what value does this have for your business?” Tripp said. “We see some that go up to $50,000.”

The program is already preparing for the summer term, screening businesses and students. Tripp said 12 businesses have applied for the program so far and he expects to have 100 applicants for the student positions.

Shawna Persaud, a graduate student who led a team working for Kerry Inc., a food and nutrition company, this spring, said she was drawn to the program by its flexibility. “To have the opportunity to spend five to 10 hours a week interacting with businesses and still be able to keep up with your thesis research, that’s been a huge benefit and selling point,” Persaud said.

Michael Wilson, a postdoctoral student in the Center for Drug Design, decided to work with the Trost project to try something different. “I was really excited for this product, because it’s not in my area of expertise,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get training in different contexts, and apply myself.”

For Trost, Wilson’s team dug through scientific research and found studies that showed the positive effect that images of familiar objects, such as the food and flowers he draws, had on people with dementia and other memory impairments. They gave Trost recommendations to expand his current activity kit, which he said he plans to implement by next year.

“The team has provided valued information, discussion, suggestion and interpretation,” Trost said via e-mail. “I have appreciated Michael’s leadership as he has guided his team through this project.”

Participating students have found they can, in essence, steer the directions for growing companies. More than a dozen student participants have received internship or full-time positions from participating businesses.

Jake Petersburg, a fellow who started in the program as a volunteer, is working with Cellnovo, a company currently based in Europe that plans to move to Minnesota. They are working to develop a mobile diabetes-management system and asked the student consultants to determine how effectively it delivers insulin.

“Our team has a huge data set from their patients, and they don’t have a lot of technical expertise in analyzing the specific data set itself,” Petersburg said.

Lite Run Inc., a Minneapolis firm that offers services to help people regain mobility following an injury or disability, asked the first group of economic fellows last summer to assess the market potential for a rehabilitation device it developed.

Lite Run initially planned on marketing its device exclusively to hospitals, but the student consultants found it could also target other intensive-care facilities.

The student team also spent time reaching out to potential investors. They didn’t find any direct matches, but Tripp said the group raised awareness of Lite Run in the local investment community. 

Alex Van Abbema is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.