Start-Ups Trying to Improve Lives Get a Boost From the U.N.
CAIRO—The United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, is best known for advocating for the rights of children around the world.
But the organization not only provides health and education services directly, it also invests in private companies that are developing open-source technologies that could help improve the lives of at-risk women and children.
Unicef’s Innovation Fund, which has raised more than $14 million so far, recently announced six new capital grants to start-ups around the world, including two in the Middle East that are hiring university graduates in Turkey and the West Bank.
In early December, representatives of the fund attended the RiseUp Summit in Cairo, the Arab world’s largest annual gathering of innovators and entrepreneurs, to discuss the investment program and identify budding firms ready to apply for early-stage grants.
Cecilia Chapiro, project coordinator for emerging technologies at Unicef’s Office of Innovation, said she met Egyptian entrepreneurs at the summit who were developing payment systems based on blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Unicef has been exploring potential uses of blockchain technology in its humanitarian work and fund-raising.
Start-ups working on virtual and augmented-reality technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning were among the emerging enterprises that Chapiro and her team were looking to boost in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates.
“We are focused on technology that is just starting,” she said. “The idea is to explore and pilot and see where that leads us in order to improve the lives of children and support society.”
The Innovation Fund raises money in the public and private sectors and has received major contributions from the governments of Finland and Denmark and the Walt Disney Company, among others. Grantees need to be working in the areas of programs for youth, infrastructure, or real-time information, and must agree to use open-source software that allows Unicef to share effective solutions with global partners.
The six start-ups that received investments from the fund in December include Ideasis, a virtual-reality firm based in Ankara, Turkey, and RedCrow Intelligence, a firm based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, that specializes in data-security and personal-safety applications for people working in unstable areas.
Ideasis is developing technology to help resolve phobias and social-adaptation problems that are common among refugee children. The company was already working on virtual-reality scenarios for occupational health and safety training, disaster planning, and academic research in psychology when it applied for the Unicef grant.
“There is a very serious refugee problem in Turkey and in the region,” said Oğuzhan Köksal, a founding partner in the firm. “A great majority of these refugees are children and young people who have been traumatized by the effects of armed conflict and displacement; they have social integration difficulties and common childhood fears.”
Both Köksal and the firm’s other co-founding partner, Ilker Durubal, went into the technology field after obtaining undergraduate degrees in political science. “While our focus was virtual reality and augmented reality, we also studied social sciences,” said Durubal. “That includes psychology and sociology, of course.”
As other virtual-reality firms focus on lucrative applications like gaming and real-estate and construction visualization, the Ideasis team worked with partners in the psychology and psychiatry departments at Turkish universities on research to develop “exposure therapy” scenarios for patients with socio-emotional challenges.
Exposure therapy gradually presents scenarios that elicit fear or anxiety among patients in order to build up resistance to their phobias. It’s a common tool in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We all have people in our families who are suffering from phobias or social-adaptation issues. My daughter, for example, is afraid of dogs,” Durubal said. “We thought about how we can integrate virtual reality with the exposure methods.”
The Ideasis team draws on professors and other contacts at Gülhane Military Medical Academy, Hacettepe University and Gazi University for specialized expertise and employee recruitment and training.
Many of the workers are former students of those professors, said Köksal, and the professors “know what part of the tech landscape students are proficient and excited about.”
In classic start-up style, Köksal said he and his colleagues work hard to cultivate a playful environment where staff members can experiment and have fun with new technology.
“There is no escaping the fact that the roots of virtual reality are in gaming,” Köksal said. “We encourage our team to experiment with new devices and new technologies. Even if an attempt to try something fails, we are new enough at this business to make errors and learn from those errors.”
By contrast, the tense atmosphere in the West Bank, with its frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers, leaves little room for playfulness at RedCrow Intelligence, the Ramallah firm that also received an Innovation Fund grant in December.
“We’ve been living in times when threat levels have been very extreme, with public uprisings erupting and militant confrontations with the Israeli army,” said RedCrow’s chief executive, Hussein Nasser-Eddin. “It has tremendous effect on your day-to-day life. The whole country is cut into small pieces and every road has military checkpoints. You might spend hours to move from one place to another for a distance that would usually take just half an hour.”
RedCrow has developed a security-intelligence system that gives people real-time information about potential threats around them, such as attacks or military operations in the area, and helps them avoid those situations.
The automated system constantly collects information from online and social-media sources like Facebook and Twitter, analyzes the data and sends alerts to users. Machine learning guides RedCrow’s algorithms, which rank the reliability and accuracy of the sources.
Nasser-Eddin said he got interested in security studies after completing a master’s degree in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. He went on to complete another degree in preventive security before returning to the West Bank.
“When I came back in 2011,” he said, “I was still young and strongly believed that people like myself who had the opportunity to study outside should come back and serve the community.”
Nasser-Eddin partnered with Laila Akel, an online-marketing and social-media strategist, to build RedCrow and find its first clients, which included diplomatic missions and international nongovernmental organizations.
One of RedCrow’s first clients was the Canadian representative office in Ramallah. The diplomats tested the application for free. “They gave us weekly and monthly feedback and we designed our product based on their security standards,” said Nasser-Eddin. “We gained so much from an entire year working with the Canadians.”
Now RedCrow is going to use a $90,000 grant from the Unicef fund to develop and integrate Arabic natural language processing into its platform so the system can understand different Arabic dialects and help the company penetrate new markets beyond Palestine.
The funding will help the firm recruit talented new employees, said Nasser-Eddin.
“For us, it’s very challenging to find some of the know-how and talent we look for, especially when it comes to technical skills,” he said. “When we do find the talent, it’s usually people who are engaged with other projects or are expensive. So we find we are working with them on a part-time basis. The grant from UNICEF is going to help us make those hires.”