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October 18, 2019 | Alumni

Startup built by U of T alumni helps researchers recruit participants for research studies

By Impact Centre Staff

Weiwei Li and Catherine Chan smile as they pose beside a wall mural featuring several giant raised hands.

Weiwei Li (BASc 2016, MASc 2018) and Catherine Chan (MSc 2018), both U of T alumni, built their startup after Chan experienced challenges recruiting and managing participants for research studies during her master's degree in nutritional sciences (photo courtesy of Honeybee Hub)

University of Toronto alumni Catherine Chan (MSc 2018) and Weiwei Li (BASc 2016, MASc 2018) have developed a digital solution to reduce the time and money it takes for researchers to find suitable participants for their research studies. At the same time, they’ve also created an innovative way to encourage stronger public participation.

Chan has first-hand experience with the challenges of participant recruitment and management. As a master’s student in the department of nutritional sciences in the Faculty of Medicine, she spent much of her time looking for people to participate in her study on how faba bean pasta affects glycaemia, satiety, and metabolic control in young adult males.

Frustrated, she saw other university researchers spending a large portion of their time and budget on recruitment.

“Researchers are spending too much time on advertising and administrative tasks rather than their expertise and we want to change that,” says Chan.

“The goal of human-based research studies is to get important data that will help researchers create a better community for everyone to live in. Difficulties in recruitment delay research outcomes that could change lives.”

Catherine Chan smiles as she holds up her phone with Honeybee Hub displayed on the screen.

Chan’s solution was Honeybee Hub. Instead of paper notices on cluttered bulletin boards and ads on public transit and radio, the startup provides a platform where academic researchers can post research studies that are actively recruiting participants. At the same time, the general public can use Honeybee Hub to find interesting studies to join.

Chan first got the idea as she was writing up her master’s thesis. With encouragement from her supervisor, Harvey Anderson, a professor in the departments of physiology and nutritional sciences in the Faculty of Medicine, Chan was accepted into Techno, the entrepreneurship training program at the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Impact Centre – one of several entrepreneurship hubs on campus.

“Catherine made a fantastic first impression – she came with a passion to solve a problem experienced by people at U of T and beyond and was absolutely determined to solve it,” says Leo Mui (BSc 2008 NEW, MSc 2010), the Impact Centre’s manager of entrepreneurship programs.

“We were delighted to help her start her company.”

"people didn’t know how rewarding it can be to take an active part in research"

Chan soon partnered with Li, who received two applied science degrees from U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, to found Honeybee Hub.

The Impact Centre provided Honeybee Hub with mentorship and workspace through its startup incubation process.

Recognizing the importance of data security, Chan and Li built an anonymous and encrypted chat feature to ensure secured communication. By replacing other instant messaging platforms, social media chats and third-party emails, participants can join studies without the risk of compromising their online identities.

Heartened by the willingness of U of T researchers to use their website, Chan and Li plan to launch a mobile app in November to better communicate with potential participants and busy researchers.

“Recruitment for research study participants was challenging because people didn’t know what opportunities existed and they aren’t aware of how rewarding it can be to take an active part in research,” says Chan. “The participants from my pasta study asked me where they could join more studies but I had no idea where to direct them.

“Now, I can tell them to visit”

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