U of T startup Honeybee Hub connects scientists with research study participants, making datasets more diverse and speeding the pace of discovery.

It began when Catherine Chan was looking for people to eat some pasta. As a master’s student in U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, she was researching how noodles made from faba beans affect metabolic control in young adult males.

But finding participants proved difficult. “People didn’t know what opportunities existed or how rewarding it can be to take an active part in research,” says Chan. When her study was over, “the participants asked me where they could join more studies but I had no idea where to direct them.”

Now she does—to honeybeehub.io, where her startup is connecting scientists with people in the community who want to help the global research effort, in everything from vaccines and drugs to politics and tech products. Best of all, the digital approach to recruitment helps ensure a wider demographic range is represented in global research studies.

U of T Entrepreneurship helped Honeybee Hub scale up fast

“Recruitment delays and biases both limit the quality of research,” says Chan. “We wanted to change that. And beyond just supporting filling quotas, we’re also committed to building a community that will facilitate greater diversity and inclusion in research.”

As she was finishing up her master’s degree in 2018, Chan was accepted into the Techno program at the Impact Centre, one of U of T’s incubators. “I did market research with them, to figure out if there was a need for this,” says Chan. “Techno gave us great insights to get started.”

The Impact Centre also provided microfinancing for incorporation costs and unlimited mentorship time. “As first-time and young entrepreneurs,” says Chan, “we really need mentorship to help us make crucial decisions. The U of T mentors are so dedicated and we have conversations beyond the company to help us develop as entrepreneurs and people.”

Chan and her co-founder Weiwei Li also worked with H2i, U of T’s Health Innovation Hub, from August of 2019. As they advanced from a Stage 2 to Stage 3 company, they won a $5,000 grant from the H2i Pitch Perfect Competition, benefited from targeted advice via the accelerator’s course offerings and enjoyed monthly one-on-one mentorship. Funding for Honeybee ramped up in 2020 with a $10,000 Origin Grant, followed by a $50,000 investment from former colleagues who believe in Chan and Li’s mission.

“Our mentors really helped with the growth of the company,” says Chan. “For example, they facilitated a lot of connections and also helped us to get the lingo right to reach customers investing in the health space. And H2i connected us with a lawyer to get our privacy policy and terms and conditions done.”

“Being a part of the U of T Entrepreneurship network also allowed us to qualify for ONRamp office space,” adds Chan. “As an infant stage startup, to be immersed in an ecosystem with like-minded people and other founders helped us build connections and friendships.”

Finding research study participants plays a key role in the COVID-19 response and racial equality efforts

Chan and Li launched their web portal and mobile app in 2019. The service “creates a community where people can discover opportunities,” says Chan. “People can often participate right on their phone.”

The portal lists global research studies, tagging them according to categories. The types of study featured range from clinical trials in medicine to surveys and projects developing products, services and regulations.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, Honeybee added dedicated COVID-19 areas. “The events of 2020 brought about rapid change at a global scale, shedding light on the power of health research and the importance of research participation,” Chan says. Over the year, Honeybee supported more than 400 labs and institutions in three countries, for both COVID-19 and other studies. “After the first lockdown happened, a lot of health research was significantly delayed,” she says. “We’ve helped a lot of these researchers get back on their feet with the right tools to recruit for online studies.”

“While recruiting fast is important, we can’t afford to be sloppy and non-inclusive,” says Chan. “Because research is the starting point in the creation of products, services and policies that affect us all, it’s so important to have a data set that represents our entire community.”

“Our mission includes attracting more diverse groups and people to consider research participation, even if they have never tried it before.”

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