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Matching Grad Student Skills With Regional Business Needs

A group of students working together in a library

Business development, market research, product improvement—these are all top-of-mind for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to grow. And for a few of these businesses, they’re also where teams of University of Minnesota graduate students are lending a hand.

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program, sponsored by the Office of University Economic Development with support from the Graduate School, connects groups of four to five graduate student consultants with Minnesota companies looking to overcome business challenges.

Each group of students is led by an economic development fellow—a grad student who has already participated in the program as a consultant and will now help manage one of the projects, provide mentorship and facilitate communication between the students and their business clients. At the end of each eight- to 12-week project, the fellows report on the project’s economic impact, including how it has helped promote economic development.

For both the fellows and the student consultants, the EDF program provides valuable experience on navigating a business environment, understanding industry partners’ priorities and working in a consulting team—skills they that complement the in-depth learning they already hold within their field of study.

Shawna Persaud, lead economic development fellow and pharmacology Ph.D. student at the U’s Medical School, said the EDF program gives her a unique opportunity to develop project management and leadership skills while solving pressing business problems.

“The exposure to diverse businesses here in the Twin Cities has been a valuable experience and helped me refine my career goals,” Persaud said. “Knowing that I've been able to contribute and provide value to our clients while gaining professional experience has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.”

Star Tribune article recently noted EDF consultants’ work with Minneapolis-based startup Aucta Technologies, which is developing noninvasive nerve stimulation technology to help regulate appetite or treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. The student consultants assisting Aucta are building a business plan, sizing up the market, and conducting intellectual property research for the nerve stimulation technology to help pave its path to market.

The Aucta partnership is one of the five projects in the program this semester.

Gaining Momentum

The EDF program, currently in its fourth project cycle, has quickly hit its stride, and it shows no signs of slowing. The Graduate School recently joined in supporting the program, helping spread the word about it to students, staff and faculty around the University. The results have been substantial—nearly 100 grad students showed up for the kickoff event to learn about the most recent EDF program cycle, with more than 60 of them submitting applications to participate.

“We’ve had more applicants than we’ve ever received before; it’s exciting to see students show such high interest in gaining practical business experience,” said Tim Tripp, UED’s assistant director. “We have also seen businesses benefit from the recommendations student consultants provide to them, in some cases even through a boost in revenue.”

Going forward, Tripp said the EDF program is ready to grow. He plans to reach out to chambers of commerce, venture capital firms and other organizations to recruit more proposals for business projects. And, while the program has already partnered with businesses in areas such as St. Cloud, MN, and Goodhue, MN, Tripp hopes to expand its reaches further outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area and across the state.

“We’re hoping to expand this program and continue the fruitful partnership between the University community and Minnesota businesses,” he said.

Participate in the Program

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program will recruit the next round of volunteer consultants in May. Sign up for the email list to receive notifications or contact with questions.

Companies interested in participating in the program are invited to submit a project proposal.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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