Impact Tech | March 7, 2024

VilCap and IBM propel new technologies as a catalyst for life-improving services

Ben Younkman

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Guest Author

Ben Younkman

The explosion of new technology and AI solutions promising improved efficiency, creativity, and sustainability coincides with record inflation, pessimism around economic resilience, and technophobia

Amidst this dichotomy, many startup founders perceive the transformative potential of technology in our current systems. Notably, communication has reached unprecedented levels of efficiency, allowing founders to leverage global markets and simultaneously introduce tech-enabled products and services to their local communities. This juxtaposition underscores the coexistence of technological advancements with economic uncertainties, prompting innovative entrepreneurs to navigate and capitalize on this dynamic landscape.

Enter John Lombela in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose fintech startup, Axalio, embodies his belief in technology’s capacity to make significant, real-world impacts. By targeting communities historically marginalized by traditional banking systems, Axalio aims to bring about transformative change.

Axalio prioritizes the financial inclusion of Africa’s artisanal mining workers, a largely unbanked group working in precarious conditions. Lombela’s initiative showcases how technological innovation can extend beyond digital transformation, bringing about tangible improvements in safety, access, and financial empowerment for some of society’s most vulnerable sectors.

Leveraging cloud technology for market insights and ethical investment strategies, Axalio facilitates capital access for miners like Joseph in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who used financing from their network to improve safety measures in his mining operations and gain access to fairer, more lucrative markets for his minerals.

Axalio was one of 45 impact startups that participated in last year’s IBM Hyper Protect 2023 Accelerator, an investment-readiness and technical mentorship program hosted by Village Capital, with support from IBM, for early-stage startups building tech solutions for essential digital, financial, and healthcare services. The company is now preparing to pilot its program with Joseph and other community mining leaders in the DRC.

The potential ripple effect of scaling Axalio’s technology could be enormous: Axalio hopes to positively impact 5,000 miners this year and eventually reach two million miners in the DRC.

Bots for Good

A second example of how tech enables financial freedom from our IBM Hyper Protect 2023 cohort is Ziggma. The US-based company aims to empower private, self-directed investors… impulsed by bots.

Crafted by experienced investment professionals, Ziggma surpasses traditional brokerage services by offering features often lacking elsewhere. This includes aiding investors in aligning their investments with social and environmental values. “A fast-rising number of investors wish to also make a positive social or environmental impact through their investment decisions. Ziggma helps these investors vote with their shares on important shareholder resolutions concerning social and environmental matters,” explains founder Ulrich Ebensperger.

Ziggma leverages data management to handle massive datasets. “The technical story boils down to our ability to handle massive amounts of data efficiently in one hand while driving value from that data for our users with the other,” says Ebensperger. Helping users optimize their portfolios ensures that startups of socio-economic merit receive crucial funding. 

Tech for Health Equity 

Luckily for us, technology is not only supporting financial inclusion and safe workplaces, it’s also caring for our bodies and minds.

NeuralMed is centering patients at the center of health innovation rather than hospitals and new technologies. “We developed algorithms that are able to digest and structure any type of medical data, from simple structured data to complex unstructured free-form medical texts and images, and transform this into a complete view of the patient,” says co-founder Anthony Eigier. This patient focus allows the healthtech startup to provide an end-to-end solution covering diverse aspects of healthcare, from ER triage to in-hospital monitoring and distance coordination.

NeuralMed’s key strength lies in its over 200 proprietary and healthcare-curated natural language processing, large language models, and image recognition models. These tools adeptly find, organize, and enhance patient care automation. Atlas, NeuralMed’s flagship product for chronic conditions, further underscores the transformative power of their technology through early diagnostics.

Highlighting another innovative health tech startup, CheckUps addresses healthcare challenges in Kenya by introducing an affordable, tech-enabled home care model to the underinsured working population. 70% of Kenyans spend more than 10% of their incomes on medical expenses, forcing them to make difficult tradeoffs in the current system. Traditional insurance covers only 5% of working Kenyans, leaving many without coverage. Meanwhile, public health facilities are inadequate for most people’s health needs.

By “adopting emerging technologies like AI and blockchain, CheckUps strengthens its platform for scalability and efficiency,” in its mission to disrupt the way healthcare is financed and delivered across Africa, says CEO Lantum. He also credits the technical support received from IBM through the accelerator program. Lantum cites one family in Nairobi as an example of how the startup is alleviating the burden of recurring healthcare costs and bridging Africa’s technology-financing gap. A couple, Joyce and John, provide for their three children and parents with their informal trading business. John’s recurring health costs to manage his hypertension weigh heavily on the family. CheckUps is able to offer them prepaid family coverage plans starting at $1.50 daily, reducing their out-of-pocket expenses by over 60%. 

CheckUps aspires to serve over 15 million underinsured Africans by 2030.

Eye to the Future

Cybersecurity and education will have a profound effect on how technology influences our lives and communities in the future. Many companies grapple with the cybersecurity maturity curve. Elemendar in the UK is helping alleviate cybersecurity burdens by handling time-consuming tasks that humans don’t often want to do while navigating the threat landscape with AI expertise to map and sidestep risk expertly. 

“We use a mix of fine-tuned large language models, classic natural language processing, and running algorithms across our graph database of the threat landscape to understand risks at scale without needing teams of analysts,” explains co-founder Syra Marshall. “By minimizing hallucinations with the guide rails of our older work, and exploring how models like ChatGPT and Llama can improve our outputs, we’re even having fun finding and mitigating their limitations.”

The cybersecurity company has been involved in several national government projects. 

“To step through their workflow alongside them and see the types of struggles they manage led to a sense of purpose and meaning that we’re not only positively impacting their day-to-day lives but making a real difference in keeping ours and allies’ national infrastructure and businesses secure,” shares Marshall.

In a similar vein, Innovare, is harnessing technology to prioritize the well being of individuals in the realm of education. The company’s business intelligence tool for educators delivers timely and comprehensive information, enabling informed decision-making. “We want educators, their staff, school boards, the nonprofit that is working with them, and the philanthropist who is funding them, to have quick access to the entire academic and social-emotional data story about each student,” says co-founder Fernando DeLeon.

The system operates by allowing users to initiate their analysis through pre-designed dashboards in Innovare’s marketplace or by creating custom dashboards. DeLeon further notes that their AI companion suggests goals and visualizations to convey stories of impact effectively and recommends impactful activities. 

Innovare’s adaptability is evident in its partnerships with YPI Charter Schools and the Detroit Children’s Fund. Yvette from YPI Charter Schools says Innovare’s data visualizations provide insight into academic growth. Twila Ainsworth-Comfort from Detroit Children’s Fund says the company has “literally saved us months of work.” 

Elemendar and Innovare exemplify technology solutions that fulfill practical needs and contribute positively to society.

As heartening as it is to note startups like these that exemplify the power of innovation, reshaping the landscape and enriching lives in their unique ways, technophobia will persist. But we hope that impact investment will continue to build up startups that deserve funding, mentorship, and exposure in order to advance technology that helps millions of people.

Ben Younkman is the Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia at Village Capital.