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UNICEF Is Investing $9 Million In Open Source Tech Solutions For Children

"90% of our stuff fails, but that's okay. We just want it to fail quickly."

02/04/2016 01:16 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2016
  • Krithika Varagur Associate Editor, What's Working, The Huffington Post
UNICEF Young Ugandans gather around to use UNICEF's unique innovation the solar-powered Digital Drum, at Bosco Youth Centre in Gulu, Uganda.

UNICEF wants to support innovative programs in a way that goes beyond large grants to nonprofits. 

This week, it launched an Innovation Fund that will invest -- venture-capital style -- in a number of startups serving children in developing countries.

The agency will put $9 million toward early-stage startups that focus on empowering young people with technology and providing real-time data about underserved populations. UNICEF is also looking to invest in startups that provide the necessary tech infrastructure to support these services. 

"The world's problems are getting bigger and faster, and we need to match that speed," Chris Fabian, co-leader of the UNICEF Innovation Unit, told HuffPost. "Even with the Innovation Unit in place, we weren't going fast enough since we can only work on problems in succession. The fund will help to quickly get a number of programs into action all at once."

Its first round of $9 million in funding comes from four big investors: the governments of Denmark and Finland, the Walt Disney Company and the Page Foundation. These groups are considered investors rather than donors because they will receive returns including intellectual property and access to new communities of consumers, Fabian said.

The fund is part of the growing trend of impact investing, in which investors create social impact in addition to receiving standard monetary returns. The concept emerged in 2007 at a Rockefeller Foundation initiative and since then, has been adopted by Goldman Sachs, Acumen Fund and others.

In the first round, the fund will support about 60 companies for 12-18 months, and will aim to help each of them produce a working prototype of their idea. Then, each startup will be in a good position to look for more funding from the private sector or grants, Fabian said.

UNICEF ran a year-long prototype of the Innovation Fund last year and invested in 20 projects. A few of those companies have successfully scaled up. One is the game-based education startup called eLearning Sudan, to which UNICEF gave $70,000 last year. This year, based on its successful prototype, the Dutch government invested $5 million in the company to adapt it for refugees in Europe. Another venture, U-Report, a social messaging tool, now has 1.9 million users. 

When asked about the success rate of early-stage startups, Fabian said they were prepared for failure, and that even unsuccessful ventures provide useful lessons. "90 percent of our stuff fails, but that's okay. We just want it to fail quickly." 

Interested startups can apply for funding from UNICEF until February 26, 2016.

Also on HuffPost:

Coolest Schools Around The World

Coolest Schools Around The World

Share 1 of 34 Fuji Yochien Where: Tokyo, Japan This is the coolest classroom we’ve ever seen! This building doubles as a classroom and playground for students. Clearly, it’s greatest feature is the large tree that protrudes from the middle of the building, giving the space an open and natural feel. According to Design Boom, “the learning environments aim to project a fruitful and liberating atmosphere that is free of constrictive elements.” More photos here.

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Twitter Fuji Yochien Where: Tokyo, Japan This is the coolest classroom we’ve ever seen! This building doubles as a classroom and playground for students. Clearly, it’s greatest feature is the large tree that protrudes from the middle of the building, giving the space an open and natural feel. According to Design Boom, “the learning environments aim to project a fruitful and liberating atmosphere that is free of constrictive elements.” More photos here. Twitter image Dai-Ichi Yochien Preschool Where: Kumamoto City, Japan This preschool in Japan was designed to “let kids be kids.” The courtyard was designed by lead architect Hibino Sekkei to accumulate rainwater when it pours. That way, kids can splash and play in the gigantic pool once the rain stops. Twitter image Dai-Ichi Yochien Preschool When dry, the courtyard can be used as a badminton or softball court. Now kids can play in rain or shine. More photos here. Twitter image Telefonplan School Where: Stockholm, Sweden This unique school doesn’t believe in having classes or classrooms. Instead, the school is set up with open spaces filled with colourful furniture, learning zones, and workstations. Children are then taught in small groups. With this type of learning environment fosters children’s “curiousity and creativity” and encourages them to work independently. More photos here. Twitter image Kindergarten Kekec Where: Ljubljana, Slovenia This kindergarten school allows its students to change its colour whenever they want! The school was constructed using prefabricated wood panels that are painted in bright colours on one side. The design is meant to be a learning tool and play thing for kids. It helps them learn their colours, get familiar with wood as a nautral material, and change the appearance of their school. More photos here. Twitter image École Maternelle Pajol Where: Paris, France Designed by Palatre & Leclère, this kindergarten school is known as one of the most colourful in the world! The architecture firm used splashes of colour both inside and out of the 1940s building as part of its renovation. The results were a “youthful and fun cartoon-esque environment” for the staff and students. More photos here. Twitter image Makoko Floating School Where: Lagos, Nigeria Makoko Floating School is exactly what it sounds like. Due to unpredictable weather changes, this school was built to float and consists of a playground and two stories of classrooms. But the coolest part of all? The school partially self-sustainable thanks to its ability to collect solar energy and rainwater. More pictures here. Twitter image Green School Where: Bali, Indonesia Like the name suggests, this school is one of the greenest in the world. Made of bamboo, the school not only includes classrooms, but also a gym, offices, cafes, and faculty housing. The building is only powered by clean energy sources, such as solar panels. More photos here. Twitter image Loop Kindergarten Where: Tianjin, China This doughnut-shaped school has no corners. Everything has rounded edges, even the windows! The three-story building is painted in 18 different colours, making is very fun and kid-friendly. The colours are also used to help kids identify different areas of the school so they don’t get lost. More photos here. Twitter image Hazelwood School Where: Glasgow, UK This elementary school was designed for kids with visual, sensory, or motor impairments. The school’s main feature is its “sensory wall” to help students orient themselves and a “trailing board” to help the visually impaired. More photos here. Best Buildings image Xiaoquan Elementary School Where: Sichuan, China After an earthquake in 2008, the community worked together to rebuild the local elementary school. The concept for the new school was to make it like a small city, with courtyards and a labyrinth of passages and playgrounds. This was meant to foster children’s curiousity and imagination. More photos here. Twitter image 1. Alberta Depending on the district and the school, Alberta’s school year can begin in August or September. For instance, most schools under the Calgary Board of Education start the year in September, but about 25 begin in August. Vlastula/Flickr image 2. Quebec When students graduate high school (at the end of Grade 11, called Secondary V), they attend two years at a general or vocational college before qualifying for university in Quebec. This is called Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel, aka “CÉGEP.” Simon le nippon/Flickr image 3. Nunavut Nunavut schools are grounded in Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, which translates as Inuit ways of knowing, being and doing. Principles include: respecting each other, being resourceful and working together. Until grade three, students receive bilingual instruction in the Inuit language, and either English or French. As of 2019, dual-language lessons will extend through all primary and secondary education. subarcticmike/Flickr image 4. New Brunswick Reflecting its French and English speaking population, the province of New Brunswick is divided into a set of Francophone Districts and a set of Anglophone Districts. Shawn Harquail/Flickr image 5. Ontario Some cities in Ontario, such as Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto, have middle schools for kids in grade 7 and 8, sometimes called “junior high” and sometimes include Grade 6. However, other Ontario cities, like Barrie, don’t use a middle school system at all. paul bica/Flickr image 6. British Columbia In BC, there is government funding for Sikh, Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious schools. bfraz/Flickr image 7. Ontario School attendance is not mandatory in Ontario until the age of six (or grade one). At the other end of the spectrum, school is mandatory until age 18 (it’s 16 in many other provinces) or until you get a high school diploma. Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/Flickr image 8. Manitoba Manitoba primary schools are tightly capped by a strict class-size formula. From kindergarten to grade three, classrooms are capped at 20. There is wiggle room for up to 23 students -- but only one class out of 10 is allowed to be larger than 20. manumilou/Flickr image 9. Saskatchewan In Regina, school bus transportation is cancelled if the wind chill or temperature is below -45 C as of 7 AM. Daniel Paquet/Flickr image 10. Newfoundland and Labrador High school students in Newfoundland and Labrador can access free online tutoring. Tutors in subjects like chemistry, grade nine math, french and history make themselves available for five to six hours per week. kennymatic/Flickr image 11. Yukon Yukon schools finish the year on various weeks in June. For example in June 2015, the last day of school dates range from June 5 to June 25. The Cabin On The Road/Flickr image South Korea (#1) Amazingly, South Korea is 100 per cent literate, which is likely due to the fact that children study all year round -- in school and with tutors. The average student works up to 13 hours per day in South Korea. This is because the culture believes that if you work hard, you can achieve anything, so there is really no excuse for failure. South Korea has very big class sizes compared to North America. This allows for the teacher to teach the class as a community and for students to develop relationships among their peers.  Monkey Business Images Ltd via Getty Images image Japan (#2) In Japan, schools don't have janitors. Instead, it’s up to the kids to clean their own school every day. This is thought to teach them respect. Japan’s school year starts in April and ends in March. The country’s compulsory education consists of six years of elementary school, three years of junior high, and three years of high school. Japanese school buses can get really creative, as proven by the photo to the left.  Twitter image Finland (#5) In Finland, kids don't start school until they are seven years old. Finnish kids get 75 minutes of recess every day, which is a lot compared to the average of 27 minutes in the U.S. Finland has short school days usually starting at 8 or 9 in the morning and ending between 1 and 2 in the afternoon. This is because Finnish culture believes important learning experiences occur outside the classroom.   Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images image Ireland (#9) Education in Ireland is compulsory from ages six to 16 or until students complete three years of second-level education.  Andrew Rich via Getty Images image Germany (#12) German kids only get six weeks of summer vacation. Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws via Getty Images image Russia (#13) In Russia, school is only mandatory until grade 10. Eleventh and twelfth grade are optional.  DOF-PHOTO by Fulvio via Getty Images image Australia (#15) Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, kids enjoy summer vacation in December and January. The year is then divided into four terms with a two-week vacation period between them.  Sally Anscombe via Getty Images image New Zealand (#16) New Zealand’s school terms are divided into four semesters with two-week breaks in between.  Wealan Pollard via Getty Images image Israel (#17) Kids in Israel go to school six days a week from September to July. Education is compulsory from age five to 16.  Valueline via Getty Images image Italy (#25) Kids in Italy go to school from Monday to Saturday. Digital Vision. via Getty Images image Chile (#32) Kids in Chile get 12 weeks of summer vacation, lasting from mid-December to early March.  Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images image Brazil (#38) In Brazil, school starts at 7 AM and runs until noon. Kids then go home to enjoy lunch with their families, which is considered the most important meal of the day. Hero Images via Getty Images image

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