By MATT BURGESS
The United Nations has announced the first five startups to receive investment through its its $9 million (£7.2m) innovation fund.
Unicef, the UN's children's charity, will be giving seed funding to companies working to create affordable mobile connectivity, blockchain in childhood development, data collection in maternal care, and technology to help improve literacy skills.
The funding comes as part of Unicef's Innovation Fund – launched in February – and will see the organisation put up to $100,000 into each of the five firms. The companies picked to receive backing from Unicef are SayCel (from Nicaragua), mPower Social Enterprises Ltd (Bangladesh), 9Needs Pvt Ltd (South Africa), Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab (Pakistan), and Chatterbox Dating Mobile (Cambodia).
Chris Fabian, who's jointly in charge of Unicef's Innovation Unit, told WIRED the companies were picked as they would be building "solutions to the world's most pressing problems".
The intellectual property of each company's work will be made available under open source agreements, something that Unicef required for those it selected to fund. "They were not all open source to begin with," Fabian says. "Just in the way that a VC fund would negotiate equity, we've spent time negotiating open source."
Unicef's Innovation Fund is the first time the charitable organisation has taken to funding startups. Overall around 650 firms applied for the funding and the organisation says up to 40 companies will be funded through the scheme. A second application round for funding has opened and companies have until January 1, 2017 to apply.
"If we can prove that funding groups of people in places that people usually think of as the places with all the problems can actually help to create global solutions that's a very powerful message," Fabian said. The funding is being provided in a venture capital model that will see more support provided to the startups than just performance-based investment.
The $9m fund has includes investments from governments, private sector, academic institutions and individuals. But those investors don't expect a return; the UN says "value" will be provided by the projects helping others. Unicef will publish information about the progress of the five startups on its website to provide those funding the scheme with transparency about where their money has gone.
During the first six months of the 12-18 month scheme the five startups will be supported as they develop their businesses. "A lot of them need help with their business plans," Fabian says.
The five companies funded by Unicef
SayCel: the firm is providing a communications solution for poor and rural areas. Unicef says: "The team is working to improve the low-cost open source GSM communications suite used to run cellular networks in rural regions." The money from the fund will help it to reach new areas in Nicaragua.
mPower Social Enterprises Ltd: The firm's OpenSRP platform runs on health workers' tablets and lets them collect data around maternity and child care. "The platform aims to support health workers to improve vaccination rates among children and coverage of antenatal care services for women in Bangladesh," Unicef says.
9Needs Pvt Ltd: Using blockchain the company is developing identity and contracting systems to let South African childhood development programmes register children and provide reliable databases.
Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab: as part of the Information Technology University in Pakistan the organisation is telling stories over mobile phones to inform father's about maternal healthcare and help expectant mothers. Unicef says: "By using keypad numerical inputs, the caller will be able to navigate through various menus, tips, and stories, categorised according to pregnancy trimester and/or topic."