UNICEF Venture Fund Child Online Safety Cohort Update
Key insights from our first six months with the cohort building AI-powered solutions that address digital risks to children
Digital technology provides children and young people with wider access to information, culture, communication, and entertainment in a way that was impossible to imagine just 20 years ago.
With these extraordinary benefits, however, come hazards; these same tools may also increase children’s exposure to online risks and harms. Being online can magnify traditional threats and harms that many children already face offline and can further increase vulnerabilities with online risks also present 24/7/365. For a child victim, these risks can have adverse effects on their mental health.
UNICEF is at the forefront of these changes in the digital landscape through our commitment to take action, protect, and care for the mental health of the next generation. In 2021, we focused on putting children and young people at the heart of the global debate on mental health. The State of the World's Children report focused on mental health and the Office of Innovation is a catalyst for adapting the power of new technologies and solutions to fill the gap in mental health.
In February 2022 the UNICEF Venture Fund, in partnership with the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, onboarded two new startups developing Open Source, AI-powered solutions to address digital risks to children.
The two startups, selected from over 500 applications to the cohort from over 75 countries, are both female-founded, and each received USD 100,000 in equity-free seed funding. Tilli (Sri Lanka) is a game-based, AI-powered social-emotional learning tool that teaches 5-10-year-olds the skills needed to stay safe and healthy. And Talk2U (Brazil) is a behavioral micro-intervention chatbot to impart strategies to users for child online safety, as well as trainings on different types of abuse.
In the last six months, UNICEF has provided Tilli and Talk2U with tailored technical mentorships in Open Source development, software development, data science and AI, business model development and strategy, and the generation of evidence of impact and results. The cohort also benefited from the End Violence Against Children team’s programmatic expertise.
Key company updates from the last six months:
- Reached over 1,500 learners and over 50+ teachers across 3 schools in Sri Lanka
- Launched a partnership with Save the Children to deliver social-emotional learning kits to 3,000 kids in Sri Lanka.
- Completed the design and development of two learning modules on online safety skills:
- Module 1: Understanding Trust: Focused on helping kids develop clearer mental models around trust and boundaries.
- Module 2: Feelings and Emotions: Focused on helping kids recognize and label their emotions and practice lifelong, coping strategies to manage difficult emotions.
- Module 1 is now available in English, Tamil, and Sinhala through Sri Lanka's national e-learning platform.
- Completed a revamped design system which includes a more detailed narrative, new characters, animations, design assets, color palettes, game flows, and game mechanics
- Refined the Voice Recognition Model (NLP) for Sinhala and Tamil Languages
- Won the Global Youth 4 South Entrepreneurship Competition in Bangkok organized by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation, ITU, and UNESCAP.
- Selected as one of the Elite 200 EdTech Startups and named one of the world’s most innovative 200 startups by GSV Ventures.
Interested in supporting Tilli’s growth and impact? Tilli is looking to connect with a) primary schools, organizations, and individuals (especially teachers and parents) working with 5- to 10-year-olds and b) impact investors and funds with a focus on EdTech/Early Childhood Education.
- Progress on the development of an engaging learning experience around hate speech to raise awareness about the impact on hate speech in young people
- Collected data from 220 young people via surveys, interviews and focus groups; spoke with 8 online safety, wellbeing and youth experts; and completed comprehensive desk research on the topic in Brazil
- Signed 2 partnerships with Brazilian NGOs: Viração Educomunicação and Redes Cordiais
- Created a Co-creation Committee with 4 Youth Committee Members and 2 Communication Experts from Redes Cordiais
- Developed first versions (V1) of 4 intervention scripts that have been prototyped and will be tested in the following weeks.
Interested in supporting Talk2U’s growth and impact? Talk2U is looking to pilot their solution in collaboration with Brazilian partners, such as universities and NGOs that offer long-term, recurring support to young people in mental wellbeing and socio-emotional skill building, as well as find organizations that can contribute funds to scale the project's impact.
Insights from the Cohort
Some learnings from the cohort as it moves forward into the second half of its investment period with the Venture Fund:
- One of the main struggles that early-stage startups encounter is attracting and retaining talent. Local conditions, such as ongoing crises in the country, can aggravate this. We've seen the need for companies to invest in bringing onboard relevant talent, pivot fast when facing staffing issues, and focus on core projects that bring the highest value add to the company when going through these transitionary periods.
- Firsthand introductions often result in the highest potential for new partnerships. We are grateful to the End Violence Against Children team for all the relevant connections they have made for this cohort to date.
- Cohort/Cross-cohort collaborations continue to generate promising results. Talk2U’s partnership with Venture Fund alumni company Weni, which involves Weni providing Open Source Technology specifically around platform flows and a data dashboard, has further shown the value and benefits of these collaborations. While also showcasing the value of existing open-source technologies.
- Open Source games have a different landscape to navigate than that of traditional Open Source software. The Open Source movement in the gaming community is still at an earlier stage than in other verticals; and with that comes implications, such as cultural differences between open and proprietary game development, and a smaller talent pool available to work with Open Source game development tools.
- Working smarter, not harder. This cohort has underlined that it is essential to streamline time-consuming, repetitive processes and find ways to automate and templatize, when possible. Whether that be in content creation processes, development, etc.
UNICEF is committed to further supporting this cohort throughout the remainder of the investment period by leveraging its network to help identify strategic avenues that can further support and scale the startups’ work as financially viable and sustainable digital public goods not only within their countries of origin but within UNICEF and beyond such as other UN agencies, NGOs, the larger tech industry, and investors.