The research report confirmed Donna Kane's hunch: there was a market for her livestock products in Germany. The 50-page report also outlined the obstacles that Kane Manufacturing, a Des Moines company that makes heat nets for baby pigs, would face in Europe.

How much did Kane pay for that valuable market research? Not a penny. The export manager of the 24-employee family business got her free counseling courtesy of students in international business at nearby Drake University. "I was really impressed," says Kane of the five-student team that helped her company five years ago under the Small Business Institute (SBI) program.

The SBI program, sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration, pairs more than 500 business schools with small companies nationwide. Since 1972 the SBI program has aided 150,000 companies with growth issues, from cash-flow management to automating the office, and more recently, exporting.

Drake U. business professor Robert Kemp aggressively recruits area companies that, like Kane Manufacturing, are starting (or have the potential) to export. Each year, his classes complete 12 to 20 international case studies, focusing on markets from Japan to South America.

Typically, "clients" have anywhere from 25 to 150 employees. But earlier this year Kemp's students also helped David Hemminger, a solo seed broker in his first year. "I'm doing business in South America and wanted to explore seed production in Mexico but didn't think I'd have time to do the research for at least a year," says Hemminger. What the students gathered -- data on fertile regions and on growers to call -- should come in handy, he says.

Sometimes student research spares a company the heartache of entering a market at the wrong time. The case study done for $5.5-million I.A. Bedford, for example, persuaded the Des Moines apparel company to move on Japan but not China. The four-student team "did an excellent job," says David Jensen, I.A. Bedford's vice-president of sales and marketing. "One student was from China, one from Japan. Their parents were entrepreneurs, so they had a lot of insight. This was information we couldn't have gotten anywhere else."

Similarly, Conant Brewer, president of Brewer's Ledge, a nine-employee maker of a rock-climbing "treadwall" in Jamaica Plain, Mass., benefited from having a German national on his SBI team. The three grad students from Brandeis University's International Economics and Finance program, in Waltham, Mass., presented Brewer with a model for working with German distributors.

As for Kane Manufacturing, its exports are now 33% of sales. Last year it commissioned a second SBI study, this time on Brazil.

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