Start-Ups and the U.N. partner to make lives better

MENA041217JW001CAIRO – The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, is best known for advocating for the rights, protecting the health and advancing learning for kids around the world.

But the UN’s largest social service provider is also investing in private companies that are developing technologies that could provide and innovative assistance for at-risk women and children.

UNICEF’s $14.38 Innovation Fund recently announced six new capital grants, including two in the Middle East where startups that are hiring university graduates in Palestine and Turkey.

Last month, the fund’s managers flew from UN headquarters in New York to the Rise-Up Summit in Cairo, the Arab world’s largest annual gathering of innovators and entrepreneurs, to discuss the investment program and identify budding firms ready to apply for early-stage grants.

“You might be surprised that there are startups in Egypt,” said Cecilia Chapiro, project coordinator for emerging technologies at UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, adding that she met Egyptian entrepreneurs at the summit who were developing payments systems in blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Startups working on virtual and augmented reality technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning and other tech were among the emerging fields. Chapiro and her team were looking to boost in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates.

“We are focused on technology that is just starting,” she said. “The idea is to explore and pilot and see where that leads us in order to improve the lives of children and support society.”

The fund has raised $14.38 million from the governments of Finland and Denmark and private sector contributors, including The Walt Disney Company. Grantees need to be working in the areas of programs for youth, infrastructure, and real time information and agree to use open source software that allows UNICEF to share effective solutions with global partners.

Ideasis, an Ankara-based virtual reality firm, is developing technology to resolve phobias and social adaptation problems that are common among Syrian and Iraqi refugee children. The company was already working on virtual reality scenarios for occupational health and safety training, disaster planning, and academic research in psychology when it applied for the UNICEF grant.

“There is a very serious refugee problem in Turkey and in the region,” said Oğuzhan Köksal, a founding partner in the firm. “A great majority of these refugees are children and young people who have been traumatized by the effects of armed conflict, displacement, social integration difficulties and common childhood fears.”

Both Köksal and his partner, Ilker Durbal, went into the technology field after obtaining undergraduate degrees in political science. “While our focus was virtual reality and augmented reality, we studied social sciences in our education,” said Durubal. “That includes psychology and sociology of course.”

As other virtual reality firms focus on lucrative gaming and real estate and construction visualization sectors, the Ideasis team pursued research and development with partners in psychology and psychiatry departments at Turkish universities and worked on so-called “exposure therapy” scenarios for patients with socio-emotional challenges.

Exposure therapy gradually presents scenarios that elicit fear or anxiety among patients in order to build up resistance to their phobias. It’s a common tool in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We all have people in our families who are suffering from phobias or social adaptation issues. My daughter, for example, is afraid of dogs,” Durubal said. “We thought about how we can integrate virtual reality with the exposure methods.”

The Ideasis team draws on professors and other contacts at Gülhane Military Medical Academy, Hacettepe University and Gazi University for specialized expertise and employee recruitment and training.

“Many of the workers are their former students whom they have known for two or three years,” said Köksal. “They know what part of the tech landscape students are proficient and a excited about.”

In classic startup style, Köksal said he and his colleagues work hard to cultivate a playful environment where staff can experiment and have fun with new technology.

“There is no escaping the fact that the roots of virtual reality are in gaming,” Köksal said. “We encourage our team to experiment with new devices and new technologies. Even if an attempt to try something fails, we are new enough at this business to make errors and learn from those errors”

By contrast, frequent clashes between Israeli soldiers and settlers and Palestinian population in the West Bank leave little room for playfulness at RedCrow, a Ramallah-based firm specializing in data security and personal safety applications.

“We’ve been living in times when threat levels have been very extreme, with public uprisings erupting and militant confrontations with the Israeli army,” said RedCrow Chief Executive Hussein Naser Eddin. “It has tremendous effect on your day-to-day life. The whole country is cut into small pieces and every road has military checkpoints. You might spend hours to move from one place to another for a distance that would usually take just half an hour.”

RedCrow has developed a security intelligence system that helps people detect and avoid threats around them. The automated system constantly collects information from Facebook and Twitter, analyzes it and sends alerts to users.

Machine learning guides RedCrow’s algorithms, which rank reliability and accuracy of the sources.

“After I finished my MA degree in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, I got very interested in security studies and went on to get another diploma in preventative security,” said Eddin. “When I came back in 2011, I was still young and strongly believed that people like myself who had the opportunity to study outside should come back and serve the community.”

Eddin partnered with Laila Akel, an online marketing and social media strategist, to build the company and find its first clients, which included diplomatic missions and international NGOs.

One of Red Crow's first clients was the Canadian representative office in Ramallah. The diplomats tested the application for free. “They gave us weekly and monthly feedback and we designed our product based on their security standards,” said Eddin. “We gained so much from an entire year working with the Canadians.”

Now RedCrow is going to use a $90,000 grant from the UNICEF fund to develop and integrate Arabic natural language processing into their platform so the system can understand different Arabic dialects and help the company penetrate new markets beyond Palestine.

The funding will help the firm secure talent, said Eddin.

“For us, it's very challenging to find some of the know-how and talent we look for, especially when it comes to technical skills,” he said. “When we do find the talent, it's usually people who are engaged with other projects or expensive. So we find we are working with them on a part-time basis. The grant from UNICEF is going to help us make those hires.”

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