How To Turn A City Into The Most Family-Friendly Environment In The World? Invest In Global Early Childhood Innovations.

Imagine being invited to participate as a mentor in one of the most selective and coveted global startup accelerators – Techstars – for a program specifically focused on early childhood innovation to turn Abu Dhabi into the most family-friendly city in the world. That is exactly what happened to me in early 2023, and it was a game-changing opportunity to make a positive impact in a field that is often overlooked, but critically important for the future of our society.

Techstars is one of the leading global startup accelerators. Each Techstars accelerator program welcomes a batch of companies for a period of 3 months. The process is competitive, admitting fewer applicants to their programs than Harvard or Oxford. According to Forbes, their acceptance rate hovers around 1%. Chosen start-ups go on to benefit from targeted programming and mentorship programs to fine tune their offerings and accelerate their go-to-market strategies. Many of the Techstars startups then scale beyond the program across sectors.

So, when Techstars called me about a new global early childhood innovation cohort, I listened. For context, early childhood development has long been an under-funded and under-innovated field. While 90% of the brain develops within the first five years of life, less than 1% of GDP is spent in the early years in industrialized nations.

Nobel Prize recipient James Heckman demonstrated more than a decade ago that the early years is the age group with the highest return on investment, yielding remarkable individual and societal benefits. Yet, even philanthropic investment pays little attention. Less than 10% of philanthropy in the education sector is dedicated to our youngest learners. Things are slowly changing with leading universities like Stanford University(*) launching a new center on early childhood, new philanthropists increasingly supporting our youngest learners, and top tier venture capital firms Sequoia Capital, Bessemer, and Andreeseen Horowitz investing in childcare solutions, otterBrightwheel, and Wonderschool respectively.

My interest piqued when I learned that Techstars had been tasked to identify top innovations in early childhood development from all around the world that could be adapted to benefit little learners in the Middle East. The innovation program is funded by the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (“ECA”), a highly innovative unit backed by the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, who provided 6 of the 20 startups with $220,000 equity free funding. This funding is tied to the startups bringing their innovative solutions to Abu Dhabi by collaborating with local entities there to create, on the ground, proof of concept projects

ECA is on a mission to make change happen in the early years. Dr. Yousef Alhammadi, who leads Knowledge and Impact at ECA, shares: “Our ambition is to make Abu Dhabi the most family friendly city in the world.” Innovation is at the heart of this plan. The goal is to reach Anjal Z families, or Gen Z families.

Here are the five themes that emerged from the 20 startups selected in ECA’s early childhood innovation program. These themes are global, transcending borders.

1/ Play is learning. Learning is play.

Play builds social, emotional & behavioral skills and competencies in young children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, ore play drives a higher IQ, and leads to changes at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels. The United Nations lists play as one of the basic rights of every child. Yet, children nowadays play outdoors 50% less than their parents did. Some pediatricians in the U.S. are now calling for “prescriptions for play” during well child visits.

In that context, it was encouraging to see several start-ups in the Anjal Z cohort focused on play. Peekapak for instance helps early childhood centers, schools and districts meet academic standards while teaching important social emotional learning competencies with playful characters and curriculum.

2/ Our brains are social. Relationships drive healthy development.

Young brains are wired for social connections. It is how we learn and develop. While the adage has it right that it takes a village to raise a child, our modern societies are stretching those connections. In the U.S. for instance, 52% grandparents live more than 200 miles away from their grandchildren according to AARP.

In the Techstars cohort, Peekabond helps families with young children to build meaningful relationships with faraway family, via a child-friendly asynchronous video messaging app that connects young children with family members. In early research, user relationships improve by 20% after using the app for just a month.

Another organization in the Anjal Z cohort fostering nurturing relationships is ThinkNursery. It helps families access childcare services, and pair them with options aligned with families’ needs and wants.

3/ Young children thrive in multilingual environments

50% of children speak more than one language on any given day. Multilingualism is associated with meaningful brain, socio-emotional and cultural benefits.

In the Anjal Z cohort, Pengguin is a virtual classroom platform for language education. Teachers are provided with multiple engaging activities including games, and these can be seamlessly integrated into their online lessons, while students are given gamified revision exercises with video reels after the live lessons. Meanwhile, Littera seeks to make Arabic language-learning fun.

4/ Personalized learning supports children with learning differences

Across the world, 240 million children are estimated to live with disabilities by UNICEF. In the U.S. alone, 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and thinking differences such as ADHD or Dyslexia. In the UAE, research estimates dyslexia being prevalent in 17% of college Emirati women students. The Anjal Z portfolio has multiple organizations focused on this large group of children, often under-served.

Kokoro Kids is a brain app with a personalized model, focused on supporting neurodivergent children with ADHD or autism through playful activities.

Kanjo is an interactive application, packed with children’s games & activities designed to help families and caregivers better understand children’s emotional health. The company is seeking to build a longitudinal data set on children’s development and cognition that could predict and understand autism, ADHD earlier than currently possible.

Kidaura Innovations focuses on improving the lives of children with special needs through innovative products. Its game-based digital screening tool, ScreenPlay, helps assess autism in young children, while Kidaura is a therapy management platform for therapy centers, designed to make therapy management easier for caregivers and therapists

5/ New technologies are expanding what is possible in the early years.

The Anjal Z cohort featured the latest technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and biological markers.

Leveraging AI technology, has developed a groundbreaking AI-powered baby cry translator and AI-generated sounds that soothe crying babies.

Meanwhile, Nuwa has built a robot named Kebbi, designed to act as a teacher and playmate for young children. The robot is equipped with a computer monitor screen that displays learning materials, videos, and games, and can entertain children with singing and dancing.

In a different area of science, we are increasingly learning that immune diseases will impact more than 50% of newborns. The first 3-5 years are crucial in building a healthy gut foundation. Snapi analyzes gut microbiome from babies, and supports parents to solve immune-related diseases and conditions.

Across those five themes and beyond, investing in early childhood innovations is not only a moral imperative but also a smart investment in the future of our world. It can help create a better, more equitable, and sustainable future for all. When visitors enter the ECA building in Abu Dhabi, they are welcomed with this quote: “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” By prioritizing the development and well-being of our youngest learners, we can build a stronger foundation for a more prosperous and thriving global community.

To find out more about the new upcoming Anjal Z Techstars Founder Catalyst program coming soon please sign up here


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