UNICEF Venture Fund: Growth Funding
A new funding mechanism to accelerate the most promising open-source startup solutions
The UNICEF Venture Fund is launching its new strategy to provide Growth Funding to accelerate more promising open-source solutions and support their positioning for sustainable investment.
The UNICEF Venture Fund is a $35M+2527ETH+8BTC pooled fund – the first financial vehicle of its kind in the United Nations – investing in early-stage, open-source, emerging technologies with the potential to impact children on a global scale. The Fund makes equity-free investments exclusively in for-profit startups registered in emerging economies, with a commitment to building a diverse portfolio, based on our thesis that investing in and supporting traditionally overlooked opportunities can spur new valuable innovations that attract capital and generate a return.
We have already seen groundbreaking results of our seed stage portfolio companies even when compared to private venture capital funding.
- Our Portfolio of 113 early-stage solutions across 67 developing and emerging markets have reached over 16.9 million beneficiaries.
- Companies in our portfolio have collectively raised over $12.5 million USD in additional funding for their open-source solutions. 79% of the companies in our Portfolio are generating revenue, and five have been acquired in the past year.
- Female-founded and -led startups comprise 40% of our portfolio. Through our Smart Investing initiative, we aim to improve this balance, and raise our diversity standard to include people with disabilities and broader age groups.
However, our early-stage innovators continue to face challenges in accessing sufficient financing to take them to the next stage. In addition to experiencing the ‘missing middle’ (see more below), they are faced with inequities within existing funding flows: only 10% of private capital investment goes into emerging markets.
Two new financing tiers of up to $400,000 in equity-free funding, in fiat and/or cryptocurrency, are now available to Venture Fund portfolio companies to help accelerate the most promising innovations, contributing to UNICEF’s aim for every child to survive and thrive.
This new growth funding opportunity available to companies that have received seed funding from the Venture Fund and have shown promising results, enables UNICEF to:
- Further strengthen the quality of open source intellectual property in areas that are high priority to reach UNICEF’s goals for children
- Grow the evidence base that underpins these solutions to illustrate how they can accelerate results
- Facilitate growth of companies by providing access to innovators and ecosystems in new markets, including through increasing collaboration with UNICEF Country Offices
- Validate product-market fit as a basis for scaling open source solutions within UNICEF
- Grow a pipeline of potential projects that qualify as Digital Public Goods (DPGs)
Acceleration Funding is designed to offer the most promising solutions from the Venture Fund Portfolio follow-on funding, entry into new markets in close collaboration with UNICEF Country and Regional Offices, and strengthening of business models – all further contributing to the creation of digital public goods that can accelerate the results for children.
Companies that have shown a strong record of open source activity, having continuously built on their respective solutions in the open, and that have proven to be financially sustainable along with robust evidence of impact, can be eligible for Acceleration Funding of up to $400,000 USD.
The Bridge Funding tier is a vehicle for companies that have already developed and validated their MVP, but require additional capital of up to $150,000 USD to take the solution to the next stage of impact.
To ultimately generate evidence of impact, this tier will provide additional support to companies in a variety of growth areas, including but not limited to:
- Further validating product/market fit
- Deploying large-scale pilots
- Developing additional features to enhance solutions’ usability
- Collecting data to validate evidence of impact of the solution
- Accelerating customer acquisition and geographical expansion
Why the UNICEF Venture Fund is launching new funding tiers
Only 10% of private capital investment goes into emerging markets.
Issues related to currency devaluation, consumer volume, and the perception of heighted risk lead to investors’ lack of demand and confidence, and the COVID-19 pandemic has driven these already-struggling emerging market funds to close – 51% liquidated in 2020.
Early-stage innovators continue to face challenges in accessing sufficient funding to grow their reach and impact further.
This phenomenon of the missing middle in financing for the mid- to late-growth stage of innovation has been well documented, yet crucial, as it is often the time when viable ideas and MVPs turn into profit-making businesses despite being characterized by marginally lower rates of financial return inherent to this stage of innovation.
We have only 9 years left to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for children; and the challenges we seek to solve are too complex for one organisation to solve alone.
Identifying, prototyping, and co-creating emerging technologies requires collaboration with innovators on the ground to ensure that technologies are built to benefit all children’s wellbeing and boundless potential. Tapping into – and helping develop – the new communities of diverse innovators and problem-solvers building tomorrow’s solutions in the fast-moving digital economy is necessary to address today’s challenges.
Growth Fund Companies
Acceleration Funding: Thinking Machines
Thinking Machines (Philippines) harnesses powerful artificial intelligence to mine alternative digital data sources such as satellite imagery, social media, e-commerce data, and crowdsourced maps, collecting valuable, actionable insights on socioeconomic conditions, infrastructure reach and quality, and environmental conditions to help any organisation make better, data-driven decisions. The team has processed over 30M data points to date, and has provided the largest telco in the Philippines with wealth estimate data.
Problem statements across several UNICEF focus areas highlight the lack of credible, coordinated, and timely information across systems; examples include harnessing data sets from existing humanitarian data from various sources; scant data on the situation of adolescents; and requiring monitoring and early warning systems in the context of WASH, climate smart systems, and others.
Thinking Machines’ solution cuts across various programmatic areas, and can enhance the capacity of UNICEF – and any other organisation – to generate valuable insights to address these and many other data-related challenges.
With the acceleration funding, Thinking Machines will expand their work to cover an additional nine Southeast Asian countries and their engagement across the UN system as collaborators or users of their platform. With UNICEF’s Country Offices and Regional Office in East Asia and the Pacific (EAPRO), Thinking Machines will develop and expand the features of their platform, improve the user experience, collect data on evidence of impact, and strengthen their open source community engagement.
Read more about Thinking Machines' Acceleration Funding
Bridge Funding: Pixframe
Pixframe (Mexico) develops game-based learning tools to promote the development of children, young people, and adults through innovation and technology. Pixframe has developed MatematIA, which was piloted in collaboration with UNICEF Mexico, and Towi, a cognitive assessment formed by a series of mini training games to develop cognitive skills, powered by an AI algorithm that helps predict children’s learning issues.
In Mexico, more than 4 million children and adolescents do not attend school, while 600,000 more are at risk of dropping out due to several factors. Low performance of content taught in compulsory basic education has also been reported. There is an opportunity to use innovative tools, platforms, and methodologies to ensure that children reach minimum proficiency, enabling them to succeed.
With the bridge funding, Pixframe will design and develop new mini-games to develop cognitive skills, and develop new features that increase usability and scalability, aligned with the Digital Public Goods Standard. Pixframe will also improve upon the AI models, used with the new data generated, to better predict children’s learning difficulties.
Pixframe will also pilot their cognitive assessment, Towi, across schools in at least two countries, with at least one thousand pilot users, to detect how they behave on the platform and better predict learning difficulties and outcomes. Pixframe will collect relevant data and analyse the efficiency of their intervention for predicting learning difficulties and correlations between literacy and AI models, collated into a proposal for ADD severity classification.
Read more about Pixframe's Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: Weni
Weni (Brazil) has built a platform that uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to support multiple languages and an open database, enabling collaboration across organisations and allowing users to create chatbots. Weni uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate conversations that flow more naturally, creating a more human-like experience. With funding and tailored mentorship from the Venture Fund, Weni continued improving their NLP system which now has over 180 languages integrated.
Widespread misinformation and myths about COVID-19 circulating across digital and social media have exacerbated challenges in controlling and fighting the pandemic. As the pandemic continues to upend lives, access to relevant, reliable facts remains vital to support emergency risk communications and promote protective and preventive behaviors at individual and community levels.
Weni was tapped by the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia RO and WHO to develop HealthBuddy, a multilingual interactive chatbot, as a tool to help countries in the region to access timely, accurate information and counter misinformation surrounding the virus.
With bridge funding, Weni aims to further enhance its features, including by developing a new NLP model and improving data visualizations. These new features will be tested with partners in Brazil, ultimately making it easier for UNICEF Country and Regional Offices and other organisations to create effective solutions toward advocacy and behavioral change – using an AI-powered chatbot.
Read more about Weni's Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: Somleng
Somleng (Cambodia) is an Open Source Cloud Communications Platform that enables communication across people and communities, without the need for internet connectivity. Using interactive voice response (IVR) and several open source applications, Somleng provides local delivery of SMS and calls at a fraction of the cost of other commercial solutions, solving the problem of reaching beneficiaries in hard-to-reach areas.
Cambodia is a country consistently ranked as one of the most vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. In 2013, floods covered almost half the country, affecting nearly 1.7 million people. If provided with advance warning, many could have been helped.
Somleng’s open source IVR and SMS platform have been tapped and adopted by the Government of Cambodia to run its National Emergency Warning System, which alerts vulnerable communities of impending flooding by triggering automated alerts. Somleng is also powering an mHealth project in Guatemala, collaborating with UNICEF and the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, which aims to improve nutritional conditions.
The additional bridge funding will be used to improve Somleng’s platform with enhanced SMS capabilities and a simplified onboarding process for organisations wishing to adopt cloud communications capacity. Somleng will also continue pilots in Central America and Africa, providing valuable data to improve the platform.
Read more about Somleng's Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: StaTwig
StaTwig (India) leverages blockchain to improve food and vaccine distribution systems, making them more efficient and transparent with a layer of accountability. Through their platform, stakeholders – from consumers, producers, distributors, regulators, to financers – are connected via tamper-proof, open ledgers, resulting in a completely transparent supply chain.
Every year, vaccines prevent numerous diseases and save millions of lives; yet, one in five infants miss out on basic routine immunizations – and as a result, 1.5 million children die each year from diseases that could have been prevented. High immunization coverage is especially difficult to achieve in rural areas, where supply chain efficiencies slow the rate at which vaccines can be delivered. The WHO estimates that nearly 50% of vaccines are at risk of being wasted globally each year due to logistics, temperature control, and shipment-related issues.
StaTwig’s flagship solution, VaccineLedger, is a blockchain-powered supply chain platform which tags, tracks, and traces data on each product in the supply chain, reducing the number of failures, simplifying payments, and providing a better service to reach more beneficiaries.
With the bridge funding, StaTwig can deploy its platform on different blockchain protocols, develop qualified pre-integrations, and pilot new features with partners including IDB’s LACChain, TechMahindra, and more, ultimately aiming to solve similar weaknesses across more critical supply chains.
Read more about StaTwig's Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: Dymaxion Labs
Dymaxion Labs (Argentina) uses AI-powered geospatial analytics to survey large areas, helping better equip decision makers toward informed public policy. Their platform and open source libraries allow users to create bespoke machine learning (ML) models to track objects in satellite and drone imagery on the cloud, simplifying the process for users to deploy models.
Latin American and Caribbean countries are key players in the agriculture and food market worldwide, so it is highly imperative to monitor, at country scale, when vegetation faces flooding or droughts that may affect yield. Even within the region, countries face stark disparities in children’s health and nutrition; chronic undernutrition greatly impedes the livelihoods of children and their future outcomes.
On Dymaxion’s platform, companies, governments, and NGOs can generate and access up-to-date, ready-to-use date to measure the impact of public policies related to food security and household conditions, and make better decisions that impact their populations and their futures. The platform can also be adapted to map informal and deprived zones in urban areas and for climate change use cases, for example, monitoring real-time weather variables that can feed into early warning systems and time series forecasting.
With bridge funding, Dymaxion aims to lower the barriers to unlock the power of satellite imagery, enabling organisations around the world to become geospatial- and data-driven. They will also run three pilots focused on food security, poverty, and climate action and further their explorations at the intersection of earth observation and blockchain technologies.
Read more about Dymaxion's Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: Atix Labs
Atix Labs (Argentina) specializes in building digital products that require blockchain or artificial intelligence (AI) implementation, successfully building solutions on decentralized identity, asset tokenization, DeFi, DAOs, digital signatures, and more. During their investment period with the UNICEF Venture Fund, Atix Labs launched an open source blockchain social impact funding platform called Circle of Angels, which matches small- to medium-sized enterprises with funders across the world.
Marginalised communities still have difficulty in accessing digital services due to gaps in access, financing, capacity and priority. Solutions that leverage latest technologies have facilitated quicker, more reliable remittance transfers, crowdsourcing efforts, and more, but there remains a lack of transparency, for example between social enterprises that seek funding and funders who wish to contribute.
Atix Labs’ platform allows social enterprises to access funding, while creating traceability in where funds are used and measuring impact — all toward fostering accountability mechanisms and ensuring consensus for stakeholders. With several implementations across Southeast Asia and experience working with NGOs and other entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank, Atix Labs uncovered the need for a new approach.
The bridge funding will help Atix Labs strengthen its API architecture, allowing third parties to seamlessly integrate into the portal, incorporating a new registration service, and redesigning their user experience. These new features will be piloted in the Latin American region, making it easier for users and beneficiaries to access the platform.
Read more about Atix Labs' Bridge Funding
Bridge Funding: Rentadrone
Rentadrone (Chile) develops solutions using machine learning, thermal, and multispectral imagery to detect, classify, and organise errors and damaged modules in solar power plants, with the goal of increasing energy efficiency and improving performance of solar farms. They have also developed AI Agro, which enhances the quality and productivity of crops for agriculture producers by providing actionable insights through UAV imagery.
Every year, over half a million children under the age of 5 die from causes related to air pollution; even more will suffer lasting damage to their developing brains and lungs. Access to affordable and clean energy is critical to children’s development and well-being. In addition to preventing the release of toxic fumes, renewable energy can bring lighting and connectivity to areas without power grids.
To date, Rentadrone has assessed 230,000 solar panels, and found faults in over 7,000, increasing the efficiency of clean energy sources. With additional bridge funding, Rentadrone will develop a mobile and web CMS for Agriculture and Solar, pilot a new hardware product (Ground Station Data Capture for AI Agro), and expand into new markets across LatAm. They will also develop, document, and implement processes to leverage open source communities and set up an evidence of social impact plan.
Bridge Funding: Comunicación Aumentativa
Comunicación Aumentativa (Chile) developed the OTTAA Project, an AI-powered alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) assistant for children with speech impairments to communicate their basic needs and express their feelings. It uses environmental data and a powerful AI algorithm that, in combination with a pictogram-based communication code, allows users to create sentences and communicate effectively.
An estimated 240 million children worldwide live with disabilities; 24 per cent are less likely to receive early stimulation and responsive care, and are 51 per cent more likely to feel unhappy day-to-day. Children who have difficulty communicating and caring for themselves are also the most likely to be out of school, pushing them even further away from realising their potential.
OTTAA now has over 5,000 users across 11 countries, helping users communicate effectively and furthering their autonomy. They have also partnered with Venture Fund company Cboard, which has already scaled across 5+ UNICEF Country Offices. With additional bridge funding, the team can accelerate their development speed of new software features, including games to enhance motor capabilities and a new Natural Language Generator. They will also run a pilot in Latin America to validate the value and impact created by their solution.
Bridge Funding: Angaza Elimu
Angaza Elimu (Kenya) developed an AI-powered digital learning platform that delivers personalised, mastery-based learning experiences and provides adaptive assessment, thus amplifying teacher-student engagement. This tool works offline, allowing users in areas with low connectivity to benefit from the platforms.
Low connectivity, stagnant teaching methods, and large class sizes affect the quality of children’s learning. In Turkana County, for example, the pupil-teacher ratio is 77:1. With new technologies, UNICEF aims to revolutionise learning and foundational skills to provide quality education for every child, including through Internet connectivity and digital learning.
Angaza Elimu now has over 8,000 active users, after testing the solution in refugee camps with limited connectivity. They’ve also seen that students have improved their academic performance by ave. 24%, while teachers save almost 46,000 minutes of administrative tasks. With additional bridge funding, the team can further develop their solution, enhancing student adaptations and teacher intervention engines, powering more personalised learning, and ultimately improve learning outcomes. The team will also build an educational data mining model to generate actionable insights to support decision-making in the education sector.
Bridge Funding: Bioverse Labs
Bioverse Labs (Brazil) uses drone imagery and machine learning to identify and map non-timber species of trees that are economically viable for supporting traditional modes of income generation for indigenous populations, thereby contributing to the sustainability of the Amazonian ecosystem. To strengthen its relationship with new partners and increase capital flows into vulnerable communities, Bioverse intends to purchase two new UAVs and develop software tools to scale-up forest inventory services, along with sharpening their community rollout and scaling protocols.
Biodiversity is essential for human health and well-being, economic prosperity, food safety and security, and other areas critical to all humans and societies. It is essential to increase the resilience of communities, reducing their vulnerability in the face of shocks such as climate change and natural disasters, increasing their ability to adapt and protect the health and safety of their children. In addition, the OECD found that restoring 46 per cent of the world’s degraded forests can provide up to $30 in benefits for every dollar spent, boosting local employment.
To date, Bioverse has vectored over 9,000 trees and completed machine learning training, achieving 97% accuracy of ML models for detection of the Brazil Nut tree. With the bridge funding, Bioverse can scale up work completed in 2021 – providing logistical support to community cooperatives in the Brazilian Rainforest.
Bridge Funding: Dronfies Labs
Dronfies Labs (Uruguay) has developed an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system that supports real-time data sharing for airspace management and multiple drone operations coordination, including during emergencies such as natural disasters. It also provides support to drone delivery operations, such as medical delivery, as the system is compatible with a variety of consumer drones. The Uruguayan Civil Aviation Authority has incorporated Dronfies’ solution in its regulatory framework.
In conflict and disaster, children suffer first, and children suffer most. Compounding natural hazards are climate change, rapid urbanization, and population growth, threatening progress on child health, education, and child protection. UNICEF has been exploring how drones can be used in emergency situations, as well as incorporated in logistics systems.
Dronfies’ solution enables infrastructure that can address portfolio problem statements across all areas where drones can be used, including imagery for humanitarian and natural crises, health care and other critical supply delivery, and connectivity for emergencies. With the bridge funding, the team can expand and refine their UTM solution for two use cases: drone delivery and emergency response & recovery. The team will integrate with other open source technologies, such as Pixhawk and Ardupilot, building an end-to-end solution for drone delivery, enabling medical entities and governments to purchase a package that is ready to deploy drone delivery in poor infrastructure areas.