A story of paying it forward - UNLEASH Innovation Lab

Early last year, I applied for UNLEASH, an innovation lab meant to create tangible solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals. As I started working at techUK in late June, I found out I was selected to attend UNLEASH 2019 in Shenzhen, China.

Fair to say I didn’t really know what to expect and did very little research in advance, with everything else that was going on here in Europe. I knew I was going to work on SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. And that there were about 1000 participants from more than 160 countries. But that was about it.

As it turned out, the programme was a massive and incredibly well organised innovation lab. We were split in small diverse teams and tasked with finding solutions for a specific user group, by passing through the steps of identifying the user needs, the actual problem, prototyping and testing.

My team included a designer from Cameroon, a financier from Bangladesh, an intern from London Mayor’s Office, a Mongolian central banker and a Malaysian student in civil engineering. Five days of working through the tasks and set exercises with breaks only for meals and sleep.

We came up with a loan comparison app for female entrepreneurs in rural Bangladesh, who although have good connectivity and mobile usage, are often unaware of loan opportunities for their businesses. Rural bankers have quotas of female entrepreneurs to give loans to but they often have to send agents to villages to find out if there are any women who have businesses and may need some money to grow them. Our app was solving a practical barrier for both groups.

All the ideas were taken through two stages of pitching and competition. One through our own track of innovation, where out of all ideas, two were selected for the final Dragon’s Den. Our app, Agan, which in Bangla means ‘step forward’, made it to the final, where we had to pitch it to a panel of four judges, including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an audience of 1000 people. Needless to say the whole preparation was terrifying and I can still recite the pitch from memory if woken up at 4am!

We ended up as silver medallists and we’re committed to making the app a reality for female entrepreneurs in rural Bangladesh. For me, the ideation process, the innovation lab, and most of all the people I got to meet have made out of Unleash a fabulous experience. Plus you get to think of what all of us working in tech should be thinking of more: how what we do contributes to achieving the SDGs, the greatest challenges humanity is facing over the next decade.

Applications for 2020 will open early this year, so keep an eye on www.unleash.org!

  • Sabina Ciofu

    Sabina Ciofu

    Head of EU and Trade Policy
    T +32 473 323 280

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