Feature: Paving a new way for student advocacy

Accel Labs co-founders

By Alexandra Burza, MMJC'19

Whether it was delivering hand-made medical gowns or reaching out to isolated seniors, many Schulich Medicine students sprung into action to ease the burden of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic.

Inspired by his peers’ efforts, Mike Ding, Medicine Class of 2023, 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. It is a social entrepreneurship incubator, providing student-led projects with the support they need to tackle pressing community health issues relevant to communities 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 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.

Among the incubator’s alumni are now established community initiatives such as the BIPOC Women’s Health Network and Creative Connection

This past year, the Summer Education Initiative, a tutoring program tackling summer learning loss among school-age children, launched 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 the kids under their tutelage. A curriculum was developed thanks to mentorship from adolescent development researcher Dr. Jacqueline Ogilvie, Assistant Professor in Paediatrics, 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 is on all of their minds. 

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,” shared 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 emphasizes that Accel Labs – from the initial fundraising that enabled funding for their supported projects, to the partnerships with faculty members and community-based organizations – could not have been possible without support from Dr. Faisal Rehman, Professor of Nephrology.

“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 shared. 

Dr. Rehman, the Director of Accel Labs’ governance board, says 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 shared.

“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.”