The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) will invest in six blockchain projects in emerging markets through its Innovation Fund. Each project will receive up to $100,000 to develop an open source prototype over the next year.
The $17.9 million venture fund is part of the UNICEF Office of Innovation, which focuses on frontier technologies like data science, machine learning, drones, and now, blockchain. It has invested in 33 startups in 23 countries so far.
“It functions just like a VC fund,” principal advisor Chris Fabian told Forbes, “except that we’re investing in companies in emerging markets exclusively, companies that have some human good baked into them, and companies that are open source and that can be combined with each other during the investment period.”
Blockchain is not new to UNICEF (the organization already has an internal team dedicated to exploring the technology, and it made its first blockchain investment in a South African startup in 2016), but these investments comprise the fund’s first early-stage cohort of blockchain companies.
And even though blockchain is still in its infancy, Fabian says the goal is to explore the potential of the technology, both in new businesses in emerging markets and as part of UNICEF’s own operations. UNICEF buys billions of doses of vaccines every year, for example, and Fabian imagines that blockchain may one day improve that procurement process. “We see these as provocations as the beginning of a learning journey,” he says, “and as things that we can eventually integrate parts of into our larger work.”
The six projects —Atix Labs from Argentina, Onesmart and Prescrypto from Mexico, Statwig from India, Utopixar from Tunisia, and W3 Engineers from Bangladesh—were selected from more than 100 applications. They propose solutions for a variety of global issues, like expanding access to electronic prescriptions, making mobile phone connectivity more affordable, and improving access to funding for local social impact projects.
Innovation Fund Manager Sunita Grote says the fund looked for projects that were based in the more than 190 countries where UNICEF operates, that were willing to make their technology open source, and that had at least an early prototype that could be evaluated. It was also especially important for the applicants’ teams to reflect gender and other kinds of diversity. “We know that this makes teams more effective,” Grote says.
Everardo Barojas, founder of blockchain-based electronic prescription startup Prescrypto, says that the UNICEF fund was the right choice for his company. “They support the positive impact that this can have, especially for underrepresented communities,” he says. Prescrypto will use its new funding to prepare for larger-scale production and shore up the community around the project. It also has plans to adopt the regulatory standards of other countries beyond Mexico, like Chile, so it can expand.
Audrey Tan, a project lead working with Atix Labs, found out about the UNICEF funding opportunity through a Telegram chatroom for women in blockchain. “It’s serendipity,” she says. Atix Labs aims to make cross-border financing more democratic, accessible, and transparent, and will use the investment to continue rolling out a pilot product to local communities in Southeast Asia.
In addition to the seed investment, the six startups will have access to the UN’s network of experts, partners, and mentors and can receive assistance securing second round investments in order to scale. UNICEF also partners with other funders like the Gates Foundation to make it easier for companies to gain traction after the Innovation Fund’s investment period is over. All six companies will convene in New York City in January for a workshop.