Filling a gap, finding a solution 

There are hundreds of innovators and entrepreneurs across the globe who have technological solutions that can positively impact the lives of children. However, many of them, particularly those in lower- and middle-income countries, may have a harder time accessing the funds, mentorship or global networks that can help them scale such solutions. This is the gap UNICEF’s Venture Fund is trying to fill – to provide flexible funding for early-stage innovators who hold solutions to the rapidly evolving challenges children are facing.  

At this year’s Collision conference in Toronto, UNICEF’s Senior Advisor for innovation, Bo Percival, spoke on the work of the Venture Fund and some of the successes and challenges UNICEF has seen in investing in open-source technology solutions. Joining Bo were two graduates from the Venture Fund, Spencer Horne from Cloudline Africa who joined virtually and Stephanie Sy of Thinking Machines.  

Collision is one the largest tech events in the world. The four-day event brings together people and companies from the global tech industry to discuss topics ranging from artificial intelligence, to the future of transport, to sustainability and technology.  

Collision Conference 2023: UNICEF Innovating to reach every child

The UNICEF Venture fund  

The UNICEF Venture Fund invests in solutions and companies that are developed either by UNICEF country offices or by companies operating in program countries. This not only allows UNICEF to be able to identify emerging technologies that can help benefit children, but also allows for young companies and entrepreneurs to continue innovating and find possible solutions to global challenges that impact children the most. 

Open-source AI connecting hard-to-reach areas

One of the earliest companies onboarded to the Venture Fund is Thinking Machines, whose founder Stephanie Sy spoke at Collision. Sy is the founder of Thinking Machines, a data consulting firm that builds AI apps and open data platforms helping complex organizations make better decisions.  

As a graduate of the UNICEF Innovation Fund, her team accelerates the adoption of open-source AI in Southeast Asia and provides actionable information like socioeconomic conditions, infrastructure reach and quality, and environmental conditions in hard-to-reach areas.

The Venture Fund investment enabled the company to develop GeoAI, an end-to-end geospatial data platform that can help organizations operating in fast-developing locations to make smarter strategic decisions. This early funding through UNICEF was a catalyst as Thinking Machines received growth funding to build AI4D, a research bank currently providing nine UNICEF country offices in East Asia and the Pacific with insights from non-traditional sources of data on poverty mapping and air quality.

(L to R) The Cloudline team with founder Spencer Horner in the middle. The founder of Thinking Machines, Stephanie Sy, holding a mic while speaking at an event in Singapore. [Photo courtesy: UNICEF Venture Fund and Thinking Machines Data Science/LinkedIn ]

Autonomous Airships helping deliver critical supplies

Joining Sy was Spencer Horne, the founder and CEO of Cloudline, a company redefining the limits of aerial operations with autonomous airships. With a billion people still living in hard-to-reach areas with limited access to all-year-round roads, essential supplies and services are often days away and often more expensive. Cloudline is building airships that will allow delivery into remote areas – with breakthrough cost advantages, unprecedented safety, and zero carbon emissions. The aim is to unlock hard-to-reach areas for aerial monitoring, mapping, public safety, and logistics.  

“We have seen the tremendous positive impact of on-demand emergency deliveries of medicine and blood. These services have saved countless lives and bridged an infrastructural gap that has existed for many decades in the world’s poorest regions. At a time when it costs more than two million dollars to build a kilometre of new paved road, large payload delivery drones allow us to reach communities that do not have the density to make roads viable, with the added benefit of a much smaller environmental footprint,” says Spencer.  

Cloudline received UNICEF Venture Fund support to develop its airships and will deploy a medical logistics service with UNICEF in Namibia this year.