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Yi Jiang of Yirego is photographed with his company's foot-powered washing machine in Toronto.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Young industrial designer Yi Jiang has already stirred up publicity with his small washing machine, the Drumi, operated by a foot pedal.

Small, portable and needing no electricity, the Drumi taps nicely into a hip market of apartment dwellers and eco-minded households. Cue the media attention and design awards for Mr. Jiang's startup, Yirego Corp.

Yet what's also been subtly winning attention is the school in which the product was born: Toronto's OCAD University and its Imagination Catalyst, a program aimed at nurturing entrepreneurship in its art and design students.

Art schools now are seen not only as fonts of ideas but as business incubators.

"This is the kind of product that is coming out of our industrial design grads all the time. And by offering the support of an entrepreneurship hub and an on-campus incubator, we can help them get that product to market," said Katherine Roos, executive director of Imagination Catalyst.

In the past, "somebody like Yi, who is proving to be very entrepreneurial, might have struggled in some design job somewhere, and 10 years into it he might have decided, 'To heck with it, I'm going to start my own business,'" she said.

"Economically, it's so much better for all of us that he gets the support he needs to take an excellent product to market."

But without support and mentoring, it's an idea that might not have made it to market, she added. People who saw the early prototypes thought it would be a handy device for people in poorer countries. Yet that misunderstood its potential.

"You know who's buying his product right now? Urban, environmentally conscious, younger people," Ms. Roos said.

OCAD's Imagination Catalyst offers a one-year, full-time incubator program that helps students get a product out of the design stage and into production.

The school also offers a minor in entrepreneurship and social innovation. One of the 12-week courses has students running their own businesses, with only broad conditions set by the instructor, such as that they must create something sellable that also benefits society.

Students have wound up selling headphone organizers made from waste wood and creating commercial art exhibitions, said Alia Weston, an assistant professor who co-founded the entrepreneurship minor.

Art and design schools are different from other universities in their embrace of entrepreneurship, Ms. Roos said. A past study found that 57 per cent of OCAD's alumni were self-employed at the time of the survey, and 80 per cent had been self-employed at some point in their careers. This compares with only 15 per cent in the overall work force.

The creative process at art schools has piqued the interest of outsiders, says Glen Hougan, an associate professor of industrial design at NSCAD University in Halifax.

Artists and designers typically want their work to speak for itself; it's hard to talk about the creative process. Yet business types, as is their habit, like to codify things. They are particularly interested in design thinking, which takes a more empathetic rather than analytical approach to problem solving.

Whereas an engineered response to a design problem is usually to find the most direct solution, this may not take into the account the many vagaries of human needs, which are nevertheless just as important and can make or break a product's appeal.

"Design thinking has been really coming into the forefront, and legitimized by business as a way to innovate," Mr. Hougan said.

Stemming from this, NSCAD runs a product-design boot camp with Dalhousie University's engineering and business schools. It's a six-week program joining design, business and engineering students into teams to design commercial products.

A class in entrepreneurship is also mandatory at NSCAD for students majoring in crafts, from ceramics and jewelry-making to fashion design. The course is also popular with fine-arts students, says Kelly Markovich, its teacher.

Yet, it's the sandbox environment – in which artists, designers and people from other disciplines work together – where business incubation especially flourishes. Ms. Markovich saw a model for this recently in Scandinavia in which artists work in a co-operative environment.

"They work in these almost laboratory settings where they are just generating things, ideas and cross-pollinating and pumping out experiments. Sometimes they work and sometimes they fail, but a lot of times it propels another idea forward," she said.

"I think what's happening here is we're seeing a little bit of that. There's a little bit more respect for the arts. And we're starting to see, 'Okay, these are the people who are going to help us innovate in other directions,'" she said.