A new social entrepreneurship incubator founded by students from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry is helping Western students launch their community and social advocacy programs.
Whether it was delivering hand-made medical gowns or reaching out to isolated seniors, many Schulich Medicine students have taken action to help ease the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inspired by his peers’ efforts, medical student Mike Ding approached his friends with a novel idea to strengthen the reach and impact of these ambitious and much-needed initiatives.
“We saw similarities between these community initiatives and start-up companies,” Ding said. “And we wanted to provide the resources, mentorship and funding to move the initiatives forward.”
Ding, along with his classmates Jess Rhee, Yashasavi Sachar, Nick Maizlin and Tharsan Kanagalingam, founded Accel Labs, which provides student-led projects the support they need to tackle pressing community health issues in Southwestern Ontario.
Any project supported by Accel Labs considers the social determinants of health, and creates unique solutions to problems affecting underrepresented, marginalized and socio-economically disadvantaged groups in society.
Successful projects receive $1,000 in seed funding, access to tailored workshops focused on professional skills development and personalized mentorship from a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry faculty member with expertise in the areas the project addresses. The workshops, co-ordinated by Maizlin, cover topics such as fundraising and online promotion.
“In medical school, we learn a lot about the social determinants of health, but students don’t really have a lot of information about the business side of things. Accel Labs focuses on finding business leaders, entrepreneurs and local community organizers to help provide our student groups with the skills to effectively expand their operations,” said Rhee, one of the founders.
“The question we try to ask is, ‘How can we help students learn advocacy in a new way?’” added Sachar.
A two-phase, pitch-style competition determines which applications are accepted for the one-year incubation period. An expert panel of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry faculty members and community leaders select projects based on criteria such as feasibility, potential impact and whether the application addresses a unique community need.
Students from all programs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, as well as health programs across Western University are invited to apply.
This past year, the Summer Education Initiative (SEI), a tutoring program tackling summer learning loss among school-age children, launched its operations thanks to support from Accel Labs. Seed funding from Accel Labs was used for learning materials, space costs and even to procure snacks for participants.
With mentorship from adolescent development researcher Dr. Jacqueline Ogilvie, assistant professor in pediatrics, SEI was able to develop a curriculum, and Accel Labs helped the students connect with the Boys and Girls Club London to reach potential participants.
As Accel Labs looks forward to a new round of applications and initiatives to support, innovation will be a key consideration.
Pandemic restrictions permitting, the team hopes to host a live pitch competition event, as well as develop closer relationships with community organizations.
“We want to take it a step further, and work with groups directly to identify complex issues in our community,” said co-founder Kanagalingam. “We can share with them the types of projects students are pitching and involve them in determining if they can be supported or integrated into their organization.”
Sachar acknowledged support from nephrology professor Dr. Faisal Rehman. From the initial fundraising that enabled Accel Labs to support projects, to the partnerships with faculty members and community-based organizations, Rehman’s support had been instrumental.
“He was there from the beginning, and his enthusiasm and his wealth of knowledge regarding charity events and non-profits was really crucial to crafting a reality out of our initial vision,” Sachar said.
Rehman, the director of Accel Labs’ governance board, said he was honoured when asked to serve as the team’s advisor.
“I know how tough it is to get these projects up and running. Others have helped me with my own charity event when I needed it, and I wanted to help students with this very cool project,” he said.
“Medical students, nursing students and other health-discipline students are the future of our health-care system. We need to help develop their innovative ideas into real projects, because they can have a very real impact.”