By Allison Campbell-Jensen
From reimagining a personal mobility device to helping farmers manage their fertilizer use, undergraduate and graduate students have been tackling issues with an eye to establishing new businesses through experiential courses at the University of Minnesota.
Located in Walter Library, the Toaster Innovation Hub is a partnership of the Holmes Center and the University Libraries — designed to foster creativity, collaboration, and entrepreneurship.
Stavig noted the unusual challenges the students faced in trying to reach customers and even form teams during this academic year of physical distancing and remote learning. Yet they persevered; they were “students who chose to take action and use business as a force for good to make changes in the community.” Projects involved students from the Carlson School of Management, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Sciences, College of Science and Engineering, College of Design, and Acara at the Institute on the Environment.
“If you’re not passionate, you won’t succeed.”
—Lee Jones, Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year
More than 160 companies have been launched by alumni of these programs. This year, the Student Entrepreneur of the Year was Morgan Kerfeld. She and three others created the TELO company, which has redesigned the rollator walker — a mobility device with a seat in front and brakes.
Instead of putting the walker in front, which sometimes requires interventions by physical therapists to prevent falls, the new design puts the device behind users, with back support. The new orientation allows “our user to be opened up to the world, so they are seen first — not their mobility aid,” she said. Data is collected on their use, and with a mobile app, they can track activity and monitor their progress.
Backyard Buzz was described by Alex Krueger, who has been keeping bees for more than six years. Honeybees are among the pollinators responsible for one-third of the food we eat but their populations have been hit hard by poor nutrition, pathogens, and pesticides. To help increase their numbers, Krueger proposed setting up hives in backyards. He would check yards for suitability and city ordinances for any issues, as well as maintaining hives.
Atland Ventures, a $1 million venture capital fund managed by University undergraduates, was outlined by freshman Sunwoo Lee. She is one of 32 partners who do early stage investing in companies that solve problems for their generation. In April, they hosted the Student Venture Capital Summit.
Marie Vanderwarn introduced her team’s Lucky’s Magic Adjust-A-Bowl with the help of a disguised spokes-leprechaun. Toaster Ambassador and Libraries student employee Gwen Nash also served on the team. Their bowl is designed with an inner colander that can be raised from the milk to keep cereal from sogginess. Two youngsters offered testimonials for the product.
Graduate student entrepreneurs
The projects by Ph.D. and MBA students ranged from helping farmers to improving gender equity. Insight Sensing’s creator Brian Bohman and team want to give farmers and agronomists the tools to manage nitrogen fertilizer in their soil, even remotely. Jeff Watkins would like to replace plastic rings that hold beers for sale with paperboard can carriers. The socially responsible packaging would be called Proper Pack.
For Team Aerosol, Nitish Ponkshe described a negative pressure mask to be used by patients with COVID or other airborne diseases. It is expected to improve home quarantine safety and offer greater protection in nursing homes for residents and caregivers.
Mother of two and MBA student Katie Newgard outlined a service to give busy parents more time with their children. With a FLOURISH subscription, parents receive expert-curated boxes of toys, activities, and books designed to stimulate young children’s minds at each developmental stage.
In the field of social entrepreneurship, of using market-driven approaches to serve society, three projects were described. Karla Godoy, who was raised in a favela in Brazil, noted that menstruating women use about 15,000 sanitary pads during their lives — and these take 100s of years to decompose. Through EcoCiclo, she would bring production of biodegradable sanitary pads into the favelas to employ women and improve the environment.
Another team boosted He2We, an organization to amend the Minnesota Constitution to replace the word “he” with a gender-neutral term. The organization also wants to eliminate gender inequality in public discourse through education, advocacy, and legislation. Rep. Ilhan Omar amplified their impact by liking their social media post and their work has been reported by the Minnesota Daily.
A team of students worked with Vonzella, which wants to respond to issues created by the cash bail system for the underbanked and overpoliced. Bail insurance could be offered by a company as an employee benefit; the students developed a tool to show employers the costs and benefits.
Outstanding teacher and entrepreneur
The Founders Day celebration also honored Terri Barreiro as Entrepreneurship Teacher of the Year and Lee Jones, Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year.
Jones is the CEO of Rebiotix Microbiota Restoration Therapy. Her clinical stage biotechnology company seeks solutions for dire gastrointestinal diseases. She also seeks to bring other women forward in the business world.
Among her advice for students and would-be entrepreneurs: “If you’re not passionate, you won’t succeed.” For those gathered virtually for Founders Day, passion doesn’t seem to be a problem.
And this fall, promising entrepreneurial students will be able to meet in person in the Toaster.