The HELIX Summer Institute: Students tackle problem on behalf of Markham Stouffville Hospital

By Sophia Reuss

Several years ago, Dr. George Arnold, chief of innovation at Markham Stouffville Hospital (MSH), met Chris Dudley, director of HELIX, Seneca College’s entrepreneurship incubator, in the lobby outside an event hosted by Markham’s mayor. With Dudley were three students who were planning to showcase HELIX at the event. Under Dudley’s mentorship, each of the students had developed a health-related app. The students were eager to share their ideas with Arnold.

After a brief chat, Arnold found that the students had come up with great ideas, but that certain “logistical issues and a failure to understand how a medical system really works” would prevent the apps from ever succeeding. But the encounter left Arnold wondering, what if the students had an inside look at the medical system? With the necessary knowledge, could the students help tackle some of MSH’s trickiest challenges?

A similar lightbulb went off for Dudley, who alongside HELIX developer Kelly Parke was in the midst of creating a HELIX summer program to help students around the world develop the entrepreneurial mindset necessary to generate sustainable, scalable solutions to real-life problems. Why not pair up HELIX’s nascent Summer Institute with the hospital?


The first HELIX Summer Institute brought together 42 students – 26 Canadian and 16 international – for ten days of immersive critical thinking, brainstorming, and problem solving.

The problem? How to address the cognitive decline observed in MSH’s Alternative Level of Care (ALC) ward and improve the overall ALC patient experience. Patients in the ALC no longer need the services of their current setting and are waiting to be transferred or returned home. Arnold explains that many ALC patients suffer from mental health issues and that the lack of stimulation and attention in the ward often exacerbates certain behavioural issues.

“They’re kind of trapped because no one really wants them,” says Arnold. “It’s not a great place to find yourself.”

Students participated in sessions with 31 mentors and presenters and over 12 MSH stakeholders, including patients, patients’ loved ones, nurses, doctors, and hospital administrators.

Parke, who acted as lead mentor for the students, started by asking them to spend time exploring and understanding the problem from multiple perspectives – the “divergent” step in the process.

Students were placed into small groups and began approaching the problem through various exercises, activities, and sessions with mentors and partners. They also spent time observing the ALC ward and meeting with patients.

“Everything that you do when you are in the room with all of the instructors is based on assumptions. But when we went there and talked to the stakeholders, the patients’ families, the nurses, the management staff at the hospital, everything changed,” remembers Rebeca Souza, one of the student participants.

Through several days of immersion in the ward, “the students became passionate about this problem,” Dudley says. “We had a couple of students going into the hospital at different hours — going in at midnight — just to see how people were sleeping, hear the noise level, it was incredible.”

The groups eventually hit their “convergence point,” which is what Parke calls the point at which the ideas start to connect, and settled on six ideas — ranging from colour light therapy to volunteer software and a custom-built nurse station gate. The student groups then entered a rapid prototyping phase to build out their solutions, before presenting their ideas to and receiving feedback from hospital stakeholders.

Souza’s team’s solution, 4Sensory, is a multi-sensory stimulation unit to support dementia patients. The unit is equipped with motion sensors and facial and voice recognition technologies to quantify the patients’ engagement and progression. It was selected by the hospital as one of the solutions their innovation team will expand on.

For Dudley and Parke, the program’s success extends beyond any individual idea developed during the ten days.

“We’re giving them an entrepreneurial mindset, so now they have a roadmap for how to innovate and deal with a problem. That was the big takeaway from our perspective,” Dudley says.