University of Toronto alumni Catherine Chan and Weiwei Li 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 experienced the difficulties of participant recruitment and management first-hand. 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.”
As she was writing up her master’s thesis, she became determined to relieve future researchers from this aggravation. 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 elite entrepreneurship training program at the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Impact Centre.
“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, manager of entrepreneurship programs at the Impact Centre. “We were delighted to help her start her company.”
Chan soon partnered with Weiwei Li — who graduated with a bachelor and master of applied science from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Toronto in 2016 and 2018 respectively — to found Honeybee Hub.
Their mission is to replace traditional methods of recruitment. Instead of paper notices on cluttered bulletin boards and ads on public transit and radio, Honeybee Hub provides a platform where academic researchers can post actively-recruiting research studies and the general public can find interesting studies to join.
The Impact Centre provided Honeybee Hub with mentorship and workspace through its startup incubation process.
Recognizing the importance of data security, Chan and Li also 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 researchers on-the-go.
“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.