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Building the foundations for a thriving Assistive Tech innovation ecosystem

This blog post was co-authored by Rhys Williams (Assistive Tech (AT) Impact Fund and Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub), and is a collaboration between ARTILAB Foundation, AT Impact Fund, GSMA Assistive Tech and Innovate Now. Innovate Now and the AT Impact Fund have been launched out of the UK Aid funded AT2030 programme led by the Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub.

ARTILAB Foundation, AT Impact Fund, GSMA Assistive Tech, Innovate Now, together are catalysing the emergence of the assistive technology innovation ecosystem in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Together the ambition is to lift the lid on this exciting emerging tech sector, support its growth and demonstrate global leadership on assistive technology. In this article you will learn more about assistive technology (AT) and these four initiatives supporting the ecosystem.

Around the world we have seen entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems established to create and support the finTech, agriculture Tech (agriTech), cleanTech, education Tech (edTech), and healthTech sectors- with many more emerging tech sectors each year. In LMICs, these technology sectors have been able to grow due to a large yet underserved market opportunity, and thriving and supportive ecosystems made up of early stage investors and angel networks, tech hubs and media platforms, academic institutions and policies to support innovation, as well as a steady increase in deployed capital.

One large, yet unexplored sector opportunity is the assistive technology (AT) sector, which includes sub-sectors such as hearing, sight and mobility. The 2011 World Report on Disability estimated that there are approximately one billion disabled people in the world [1]. The global need for AT is also growing; as we age, almost all of us will encounter impairments in our eyesight, hearing, and mobility, with the need for AT doubling to two billion people by 2050 [2]. Therefore, the AT sector is not a niche opportunity and has the potential to affect everyone around the world. However, at present 80% of disabled people are located in LMICs [3], with only a small percentage of those who need AT being able to access it. AT therefore represents the next frontier in enabling technologies which can radically transform peoples’ lives.

AT innovators in LMICs are currently operating within tech innovation ecosystems which are largely unaware of the opportunity in AT and where end users often struggle to access AT. Indeed, AT innovations remain nascent and a recent GSMA Assistive Tech study found there are less than 100 digital AT innovations emerging from Africa and Asia. However, there is an opportunity to unlock the potential of the AT sector by creating an environment which can provide AT innovation expertise, mentorship, context specific business model support, and investment capital for AT companies at different stages.

Catalysing the emerging ecosystem: introducing four initiatives

Each of our separate initiatives provide different offerings along the innovators pathway to scale; either in way of capital, knowledge and expertise and venture building, with each supporting AT companies at different stages of development. In this blog post, we introduce each of the different entities and the role which each initiative plays in the ecosystem, so that entrepreneurs know what resources are available to them.

Overview:

Summary table describing the scope of each of the four initiatives: AT Impact, GSMA, Innovate Now and Artilab

AT Impact Fund

The AT Impact Fund is a grant-funded investment vehicle and scale studio which offers capital and venture building support to AT entrepreneurs that are ready to test a business model for sustainable scale in Africa. We are committed to supporting AT solutions that provide a significant and ongoing life improvement to people with disabilities. The Fund is targeting innovation across the value chain of AT, which means we are interested in startups/SMEs that already, or could, provide solutions to the production, distribution and financing of AT, as well as AT provision itself, within an African market(s).

A young black entrepreneur is smiling as he holds up a white prosthetic limb to the light. Various other prototypes behind.

Image courtesy of Amparo

The Fund will provide grant capital plus in-kind venture building support to for-profit, social enterprise and not-for-profit businesses that are ‘ready to test a business model for scale’ in an LMIC in Africa. This could mean a business where product market fit has been demonstrated in an existing LMIC market(s); or it could also mean that the business has a proven product and business model outside of Africa but the proposal is to pilot, test and validate a business model to reach populations in LMICs. The Fund will also provide smaller ticket grants plus venture building support to early stage AT businesses, where there is evidence of market traction and management team appetite and capacity to scale.

The AT Impact Fund has been launched out of the UK Aid funded AT2030 programme led by the Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub. It is operationalised as a collaboration between GDI Hub and Brink, and Catalyst Fund providing deep expertise in AT, innovation and venture building in Africa respectively.

For more information go to: https://www.atimpactfund.com

GSMA Innovation Fund for Assistive Tech

The GSMA Assistive Tech programme drives greater access and use of mobile technologies for persons with disabilities in emerging markets and maximises opportunities for social and economic inclusion.

On 7th September 2020, GSMA announced the launch of the Innovation Fund for Assistive Tech. It will be one of the first programmes providing both mentorship and grant funding to innovators in LMIC across both Africa and Asia focused specifically on digital inclusion and exploring innovative Digital Assistive Tech (digital AT).

The Fund will be open to innovators addressing the varied needs of persons with disabilities and tackling five key barriers to digital inclusion: Access, Affordability, Relevance, Knowledge & Skills and Safety & Security.

For all eligible organisations tackling one or more of the above barriers to digital inclusion, the available support package includes:

  • Grant funding between GBP 100,000 and GBP 250,000
  • Mentoring on the use of mobile technology including expert advice and bringing organisations together physically or virtually to share relevant insights on business growth, and best practices on how to overcome the barriers preventing the digital inclusion of people with disabilities.
  • Learning exchange opportunities with other grantees and networking opportunities with the Assistive Tech programme’s networks.
  • Monitoring and evaluation support to evidence socio-economic impact and promote product improvement.

The GSMA Assistive Tech programme is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and is supported by the GSMA and its members.

For full information and how to apply go to: gsma.com/ATInnovationFund

Innovate Now

Innovate Now focuses on early-stage startups in the AT space using a free accelerator model. We work with startups who have formed a team and have a working prototype in grouped cohorts which last between three to six months. During this time, we teach our active learning curriculum which provides entrepreneurs with a solid foundation on key concepts in user, product, market, and business development. We also welcome industry experts to provide guest lectures, and host clinics on topics. In the first six weeks, our entrepreneurs also commit to completing seven mini-projects which act as a diagnostic tool to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each company. We then shift gears to co-create a tailor made package of support and a roadmap for founders to work towards. Throughout the accelerator, our cohort also works with our network of Live Labs. This is the opportunity for our cohort companies to connect to communities of relevant users so that they can adopt a user-centred design approach, co-create and test their products with a relevant and typically hard to reach audience.

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In the remaining time of each cohort, we leverage our networks in the Kenyan innovation ecosystem, the AT2030 network, and GDI Hub connections to match each of our cohort companies with relevant expert mentors. These mentors work closely with each startup to help them operationalise their product roadmaps. At the end of each accelerator programme, cohort startups present at a final demo-day to an audience of industry experts, investors and entrepreneurs. At this stage, although they may still have a significant amount of work to still do, they are now ‘investment-ready’.

Innovate Now has been launched out of the UK Aid funded AT2030 programme led by the Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub. It is operationalised as a collaboration between GDI Hub and AMREF Enterprises. AT2030 tests ‘what works’ to improve access to life-changing Assistive Technology (AT) for all; investing £20m over five years to support solutions to scale.

For more information go to: atinnovatenow.com

ARTILAB Foundation

ARTILAB Foundation is an assistive/rehab tech innovations incubator headquartered in Bengaluru, India. It is a unique pure play disability sector incubator and the first of its kind worldwide. ARTILAB is focusing on WHO Priority Assistive Products List, infrastructure and health care for the disabled to provide an equal or level field in access to resources.

ARTILAB’s vision is to empower entrepreneurs who are creating affordable technology innovations to help the disabled to be included in our nation’s social and economic development.

Black and white photo of Mohan Sundaram — Founding CEO & Director of Artilabs. He is in a wheelchair facing an audience.

ARTILAB’s incubation programme provides an extensive 3 year incubation support, state-of-the-art prototyping (Digital, Hardware, Firmware, Software & Electronics) facilities, long-term support, hand holding in product development and building a sustainable company. ARTILAB also provides funding guidance, mentorship and networking opportunities to access the highly diversified NGO market in India. It’s international alliances give our start-ups access to other developing markets like Africa, Southeast Asia & Latin America.For more information go to: artilab.org

An open invitation to unlock AT innovation

Assistive technology is well positioned to be the next emerging tech frontier. We are excited to be on the precipice of the next chapter in AT innovation, where we will begin to truly unlock the enabling potential of AT through sustainable and scalable AT entrepreneurship. For innovators and entrepreneurs who are looking to grow your ventures, our initiatives are an opportunity to take your company to the next level and we are here to support you, so reach out and apply. For investors, corporates, tech experts and any enthusiastic newcomers to AT- we invite you to work alongside us so we can continue growing the AT ecosystem. With our organisations working collaboratively to provide the supportive environment for flourishing companies, we will see AT transforming peoples’ lives wherever they are located in the world, so that people with ‘disabilities’ are no longer disadvantaged.

Blog Contributors:

Bernard Chiira (Innovate Now), Kishore Lala (Artilab), Rhys Williams (GDI Hub), Rosie Afia (GSMA Assistive Tech), Tamara Giltsoff (AT Impact Fund).

References

  1. World Health Organisation. World report on disability. 2011.
  2. World Health Organisation. Priority Assistive Products List (APL).
  3. Braithwaite, J., Mont, D., Disability and poverty: A survey of World Bank Poverty Assessments and implications. 2009.

Written by

Digital Innovation. Humanitarian Optimist. Advocate for Inclusion and Adventure Nomad.

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