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Ideas Made to Matter


These 16 companies want to make technology work for everyone


One company helps undocumented people create a digital identity. Another uses artificial intelligence to help students transition to college. Yet another provides free training to budding tech pros.

These organizations are just a few of the many that are using technology to solve problems and help people all over the world — and they are all finalists in the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy’s second annual Inclusive Innovation Challenge. During a time of great technological innovation, many people are not benefiting from this progress. The challenge is recognizing companies that are using technology to improve opportunities for working people.

The Inclusive Innovation Challenge will award more than $1 million to the finalists — four grand prize winners will receive $150,000 each, while the remaining 12 companies will each receive $35,000. The winners will be announced at a Oct. 12 gala during HUBweek.

Here are the finalists:

Did you know that of the students who have been admitted to college each spring, 14 percent don’t actually attend come fall? Or that of those who do attend, 48 percent haven’t graduated six years later. Boston-based AdmitHub created a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence to help students navigate the financial, academic, and social situations that accompany going to college, and they do it all through text messaging, communicating with students on their terms and easing the transition to college.

African Renewable Energy Distributor Ltd.
This company has developed solar-powered, portable kiosks where people can charge their phones, access Wi-Fi, or access an intranet while offline. Using a micro franchise business model, the Rwanda-based company hopes to empower women and people with disabilities who can run the kiosks.

More than two billion people worldwide have no legal identity, something that is necessary for accessing public and financial services. Aid:Tech aims to end that, by providing a platform for undocumented people to create a digital ID using blockchain so that every transaction is secure and traceable. Aid:Tech is based out of Dublin, with offices in New York and London.

Digital Citizen Fund
Only 5 perfect of Afghanistan’s population has access to the internet — and few of those who do are women or children. To date, the Digital Citizen Fund, based out of New York and with offices in Afghanistan, has built 11 internet training centers and two media centers for women and girls in Afghanistan to gain digital literacy so they can better compete in the global economy. Digital Citizen Fund is expanding to Mexico and hopes to expand to other markets in the future.

Dot Learn
Online education is growing, but less than 1 percent of the population of Africa and India have the broadband to access it — cost and speed of the internet are the biggest barriers to adoption in Africa. Dot Learn is changing that. Using an MIT-developed technology that compresses video, the company is making online education in Africa as inexpensive as text messaging. Dot Learn is based out of New Jersey.

What are financial lenders to do in emerging markets where many people lack traditional credit information? Typically, they make fewer loans, but Cambridge-based EFL uses psychometrics — or the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits — to better assess lending risk. This allows lending facilities to make more loans, and people to borrow more money. EFL operates in 15 different countries across four continent and has enabled $1.5 billion in loans.

Ninety percent of the 30 million cleaning workers in Latin America work informally — without a contract and usually for low wages. Hogaru connects these workers with small and medium-sized businesses in Latin America, providing the businesses with reliable cleaning services and the workers with improved working conditions and wages. Located in Bogotá, Colombia, the company has offices in Santa Clara, California.

iHub recognized a problem in Kenya — despite there being many people with raw technical talent, local companies had a dearth of technologists. To solve that problem, iHub opened work spaces and meeting rooms in Nairobi, where upcoming developers have the chance to work with established engineers on real projects. The Nairobi-based company plans to expand beyond Kenya in the future.

The tech industry is growing fast, but not enough people have the skills to fill the open jobs. LaunchCode is helping to solve that problem by offering free, accelerated job training to people who want to become IT pros. They also place graduates of the program in paid apprenticeships, many of which become full-time jobs. LaunchCode has six locations throughout the U.S.

Leap Skills Academy
India-based Leap offers training, mentorship, and placement opportunities for low-income, rural students in India. The program helps students prepare for the workplace and be competitive in the digital economy.

Getting goods and services to rural communities can be a challenge, stymied by inefficiencies, information asymmetry, and the inability to appropriately aggregate demand. India-based Logistimo has created a platform to increase visibility in the supply chain and ensure that things like vaccines and medical supplies make it where they need to go.

New Day
In Myanmar, where New Day is located, 80 percent of the population has smartphones, but digital employment services are not taking advantage of this. New Day has created a platform to connect job seekers with potential employers using mobile technology. The service is free for people looking for jobs.

This South Africa-based company provides a platform for financial transactions for the millions of people in Africa for whom traditional banking services are too expensive. Its service provides point of sale and enterprise management software to informal merchants, helping them grow their business.

Many job descriptions focus too much on education or years of experience, but not enough on the actual skills needed for the job. Germantown, Maryland-based SkillSmart turns that on its head, instead focusing on the skills employers are looking for and matching those employers with candidates that fit their needs.

This company, with offices in Santa Monica, Manila, and Nairobi, combines mobile technology with data science to bring financial access to the many people in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Philippines who are financially underserved. Users with an Android phone can apply for a short-term, unsecured loan from Tala and the app will analyze 10,000 mobile data points to determine an applicant’s creditworthiness.

The founders of Nigeria-based Tuteria noticed a problem a few years ago — people were having a hard time connecting with reliable, knowledgeable tutors, despite there being many people interested in tutoring. They set up Tuteria to connect tutors in everything from math to cooking with students. The platform vets the tutors to ensure high quality teaching and enables secure payments.

For more info Zach Church Editorial & Digital Media Director (617) 324-0804