Revving the Innovation Engine
A new Sprint Support program backed by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has UNICEF working with startup companies in a whole different way, to help their cutting-edge ideas blossom — and, in time, boost results for children. The focus for this first initiative: improving immunization.
In February, 9-year-old Maryana received her first dose of the measles vaccine. She was one of many children to benefit from a three-week campaign to immunize school-age children in the Lviv region of Ukraine, where coverage had dangerously lapsed, putting tens of thousands of kids at risk.
Together with partners, UNICEF works year in and year out to support efforts in countries to vaccinate children so they are protected against deadly diseases such as cholera, measles, meningitis and pneumonia, with great results. In 2018 alone, these efforts reached 116 million children with three doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine and a first dose of the measles vaccine, two important indicators. But another 20 million other children missed out that year due to conflict, poverty or complacency.
Fact is, worldwide immunization coverage — though much better than it was a generation ago — has stagnated since 2010 at 86 percent. To prevent outbreaks, it needs to be at 95 percent.
A major problem is the lack of quality data that allows frontline health workers to target those children who are being left behind. “It is difficult to accurately monitor immunization coverage through traditional administrative data sources,“ notes Rocco Panciera, a UNICEF health specialist.
Earlier this year, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, through its Global Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, awarded grants to eight startups. Each had developed an innovative way to generate more accurate and more complete information needed to improve the reach of immunization programs.
And now UNICEF has teamed up with the Gates Foundation to assist five of those companies in a project called Innovation Sprint Support. Architects of the arrangement say it provides an opportunity for more meaningful engagement and a fuller leveraging of UNICEF expertise in the course of the organization’s ongoing collaboration with innovators and entrepreneurs.
The startups participating in the Sprint Support program will spend the next year working to implement their solutions on a bigger scale and demonstrate their sustainability. “We're combining programmatic guidance with business and technical know-how to see how each idea can be scaled within different contexts,” explains Ibrahim Mahgoub, technical support advisor for UNICEF Ventures — part of UNICEF Office of Innovation — and coordinator of the Sprint Support program.
We're combining programmatic guidance with business and technical know-how to see how each idea can be scaled within different contexts. — UNICEF Ventures Technical Support Advisor Ibrahim Mahgoub
Usually the UNICEF Innovation Fund focuses on building a venture and improving the technology and making it open source so that others can use it — in other words, turning it into a Digital Public Good — in addition to thinking through the programmatic aspects of the work. "With Sprint Support," Mahgoub says, “we’re excited to keep doing all of these things, while also taking these collaborations to the next level, to have startups benefit more systematically from UNICEF’s expertise.”
Each startup team is assigned a mentor to guide their pilot project and align their work with UNICEF standards around data collection and use. The five startups and their projects are:
- Gram Vaani’s SnapVaxx: an optical scanning system that aims to expedite digitization of immunization records
- Har Zindagi: detecting anomalies in vaccinators’ e-reports to improve accuracy
- Macro-Eyes: managing vaccine supply based on predicted demand using Artificial Intelligence, to improve access while reducing waste
- Ona (True Cover): identifying gaps in immunization coverage using high-resolution satellite imagery and community mapping technology
- Tupaia: using a regional data platform to integrate and boost performance of vaccination programs in Asia-Pacific
A striking departure from a traditional mentorship program is that the Sprint initiative uses a blockchain-enabled platform called the Bounties Network to capture — and make visible — interactions between startups and their mentors. (The UNICEF Innovation team has been exploring different ways to use blockchain to transform how UNICEF works both internally and in the field. To learn more, visit unicef.org/innovation/blockchain or check out UNICEF's blockchain learning hub.)
Each startup has its own public network home page, or dashboard that is updated in real time. Anyone can visit the website to see what each company has been up to and which mentors they’ve met with. “We’re rethinking how to track the exchange of value,” says Christina Lomazzo, Blockchain Lead at UNICEF Innovation. “Using blockchain allows us to track mentorship sessions in a more transparent and immediate way, making it accessible to the world.”
In theory, any member of UNICEF’s global staff of 14,000 people could be a mentor.
In theory, any member of UNICEF’s global staff of 14,000 people could be a mentor, provided they had the relevant expertise or experience. Some mentors help with a specific task on a temporary basis; others are assigned for the duration of the project. As an extra incentive to engage, UNICEF mentors receive tokens in exchange for their contributions, which can range from offering guidance on potential follow-on funding opportunities to sharing information about related UNICEF Innovation projects.
Mentors from the UNICEF Immunization and Implementation Research and Delivery Science teams serve as both subject matter experts and potential users of the various solutions being deployed. Mentors from the UNICEF Innovation Fund team help companies map out and tackle growth opportunities and partnerships with other key actors in the field.
“Everyone knows how quickly startups grow, and how technology can be used to transform a business,” Mahgoub says. “We believe children deserve that same scope of transformation.”
For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.
Top photo: A baby is vaccinated at a UNICEF-supported health clinic in Brazzaville, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. UNICEF works with partners to make sure vulnerable children are protected against deadly diseases such as cholera, measles, meningitis and pneumonia. © UNICEF/UN0283266/Dejongh