By Ariam Mogos – Learning Lead, Ventures Team, UNICEF Office of Innovation.
Twitter: @aamogos

Are you developing the next generation of communication solutions for people with disabilities? Looking for seed funding for your tech startup?

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is looking for startups that are building the next generation of open source augmentative and alternative communication technologies. AAC technologies help people with communication impairments supplement or replace existing speech, writing or nonverbal communication to express ideas, thoughts, and needs.

Through July 15th, the Innovation Fund is accepting proposals from startups in developing and emerging markets to be part of our first cohort of problem solvers in this space. We will invest in augmentative and alternative communication technologies which employ a pan-disability and/or universal design approach and leverage frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality and data science.

Opening up an untapped market

Based on our preliminary landscape analysis, there are a number of solutions designed and built in the United States and Europe, but very few created in UNICEF program countries. This results in a gap of solutions suitable for children and adults in those contexts. On the other hand, this opens up a largely untapped market and business opportunity for startups and companies with technology expertise.

To address this gap, some people might suggest, “why not just use solutions that have already been created?” However, these platforms are usually not designed for the types of use cases and environments that address the needs of the most vulnerable populations, like multiple languages and offline modes.

To close this gap, we need more solutions designed with the user and taking diverse needs into account (view UNICEF’s Innovation Principles for more).

©Avaz

One example of a platform that works for multiple use cases is Avaz, a robust AAC app created for children who are nonverbal or who have difficulty communicating. Developed in India for under-resourced contexts, the platform is now the most widely used AAC app in Denmark and Italy, and addresses the needs of multiple disabilities, including Autism, Down Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome and Aspergers. Avaz is a wonderful but rare success story of a well-designed product that has managed to scale beyond geography. Nonetheless, Avaz is an outlier and there is still a scarcity of AAC applications which meet the needs of children and adults with disabilities.

What does the next generation of AAC solutions look like?

To learn more about potential opportunities around AAC technologies, the UNICEF Innovation Fund brought together experts in the assistive technology field to help identify the biggest gaps and the most promising trends. This roundtable included academics from North eastern University and Pace University, practitioners from InAble Kenya, disabilities activists from the World Federation of the Deaf and Cerebral Palsy Foundation, designers and entrepreneurs from ITT Delhi, and other experts working at the intersection of disabilities, technology, design and equity.

It was a lively conversation with many takeaways. A few areas identified with potential for growth include:

Designed by Freepik

Neural networks and predictive technology which can learn to predict the likelihood of an event within a user’s environment, adapt to the user’s needs and anticipate the user’s next move. An example is a smart fire alarm system, which can predict fire by constantly monitoring the levels of oxygen and carbon monoxide in a user’s home, then communicate with and notify fire department personnel if something is wrong, and before a fire starts, notify a user and show him/her the nearest exit and unlock the doors. (Read more here)

Personalized synthetic speech applications which provide users with opportunities to customize and/or personalize their voice. An example is the platform WaveNet, which utilizes artificial intelligence to model audio waveforms based on real human speech, and learn from it to create its own sounds in a variety of voices.

Language translation applications which provide users with text to speech and word prediction in a range of languages, in addition to the contextualization of language so that it is meaningful and users understand how to apply language items in a real-world context.

Social media applications with features which are optimized for AAC so that users can create and share on social media platforms with comfort. An example is the functionality of GazeSpeak, an open-source platform which uses artificial intelligence to convert eye movements into speech, and makes it easier for users with ALS and other disabilities to converse in real time.

These are only a few potential solutions in a highly unexplored space. Like the universally designed AAC app, Avaz – imagine how your solution can address the needs of many people with many abilities. How your solution can scale beyond your community – beyond geography, and function in places where access to technology is scarce? Be part of our community of problem-solvers and changemakers by submitting your application to the UNICEF Innovation Fund through our open call and on www.unicefinnovationfund.org.

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