UNICEF's Accessibility Portfolio: Spotlight on AAC
Solutions that leverage frontier technologies to address inequities faced by people with disabilities
Today we’re proud to announce that after a highly competitive process, CIREHA (Argentina), Daokudai (China) and Ninaad Digital Technology (India) have been selected to join the UNICEF Innovation Fund’s AAC cohort. Read more about our newest portfolio companies and what it means to be part of a UNICEF Innovation Fund Cohort below.
In June, the UNICEF Innovation Fund issued a call for proposals for Augmentative and Alternative Communication technologies (AAC) which address needs across disabilities and apply a universal design approach. The Fund was specifically looking for solutions that leverage frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality and data science to address inequities faced by people with disabilities. AAC technologies help people with communication impairments supplement or replace existing speech, writing or nonverbal communication to express ideas, thoughts, and needs.
How We Got Here: Our Strategy
AAC technologies are meant to help people with communication impairments supplement or replace existing speech, writing or nonverbal communication to express ideas, thoughts, and needs. They primarily consist of PECS (picture exchange communication systems) and text to speech applications to support standard AAC systems. Despite the saturation of the assistive technology market with these platforms, there are still only a handful of solutions reaching children in UNICEF program countries. Read here about the main gaps we identified in this space.
With all the gaps clearly laid out on the table, we thought what if we could take the foundation of an AAC application which supports standard AAC systems and invest in companies who can help us address these recurring failures? How could we work with a set of companies with different strengths to develop a multilingual, online/offline, device agnostic, open source platform with culturally appropriate and leveled content? How could we create a platform for a child in Brazil with Autism who needs a tool to communicate with her teacher in an online environment? How could this same platform support a child in a remote offline region of China with Apraxia build his vocabulary and new complex sentence structures? Developing a dynamic adaptable platform became the focus of our AAC strategy. Our investments in our AAC companies not only represent an investment in three individual companies, but an investment in solving a large and long-term problem in the assistive technology space.
Read more below on how each of our AAC portfolio companies is making a unique contribution to solving this challenge.
Assistive Communication Technologies Cohort:
Beijing Daokoudai [China] is developing Yuudee 2, an application being built to help children with autism develop complex sentence structures to express themselves and socially integrate. Find out more about their solution here.
CIREHA [Argentina] is developing Cboard, an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) application, allowing those with speech and language impairments to communicate by symbols and text-to-speech.Find out more about their solution here.
Ninaad Digital Technology [India] is developing an open source application to support children with speech impairment. Find out more about their solution here.
Cultivating an AAC Ecosystem: The “Cohort Model”
The AAC call is the Innovation Fund’s first experiment in designing and launching a “cohort model”. What does this mean to us? By bringing together portfolio companies working in the same technology space, open source solutions are connected early on during their development phase. Companies are creating interoperable solutions that build on each other. Open source and open data solutions ensure resources and knowledge are maximized for impact and scale. They all build code that ultimately contributes to a platform that can be scaled globally.
The “cohort model” allows the UNICEF Innovation Fund to create an environment for success, not only through financial support for product development but also by providing resources, relationships, and networks. Innovation Fund companies within a cohort have mentors with expertise in the particular technology area and can help them problem-solve challenges specific to the solution they’re creating, workshops to strengthen their business models through open source licensing, events to network and discover synergies with other companies in their cohort and more.
Upcoming Cohort Calls
The Innovation Fund has put out a series of calls around different portfolio areas which include Data Science, Virtual Reality and Blockchain. Please look out for this through our social media channels and newsletter.