ITU Digital World 2021: Celebrating tech SME innovation

A specialist start-up from Korea bridging the information gap and improving mobile accessibility for people around the world.

An easy-to-use online platform from Switzerland, supporting classroom and distance learning by enabling children and young adults to create, illustrate and publish their own books.

Or an AI-powered solution from Saudi Arabia, bringing telehealth, home healthcare and appointment booking together on one platform to improve access and efficiency in health services.

These are just some of the winning solutions pitched by creative tech SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises – at the latest flagship digital and telecom conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Six companies – all striving for on-the-ground social impact through tech innovation – were recognized this week in the ITU Digital World 2021 SME Awards.
This seventh edition of the SME Awards, attracting 133 applicants from 53 countries, showcased the depth and diversity of entrepreneurial endeavour around the world, driving social and economic development through digital tech.

“SMEs and start-ups are the engines of innovation in information and communication technologies (ICTs), critical to economic growth across the globe,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

“The ITU Digital World SME Awards initiative is a wonderful platform to celebrate and recognize innovative start-ups and micro- small and medium enterprises using ICTs for a better life,” stated Phan Tam, Deputy Minister for Information and Communications for event co-host Viet Nam.
Winning SMEs
Six winners were selected from a shortlist of around 50 finalists, who pitched their solutions online before an expert jury in five categories: Connectivity, Digital Finance, EdTech, E-health and Smart cities, smart living. Two winners emerged in the Connectivity category:

IPification, from Hong Kong (China), provides a unique mobile user-authentication solution, verifying devices, SIMs (subscriber identify modules – or mobile chips), and phone numbers via secure IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, helping to prevent fraud and protect data privacy. WIWI, a mobile virtual network operator start-up from Mexico, is helping to close the digital connectivity and opportunity gap for underserved citizens, using proprietary software and a sustainable business model to identify and track public transport users, enabling cost-effective, efficient prepaid transport plans. The Digital Finance winner, Urbit, from the United States, designed, patented and manufactured a zero-touch device that can be deployed anywhere in the world, to connect any wireless platform for financial inclusion. The company’s gateway uses cloud connectivity to process transactions via a least-cost routing algorithm, making financial inclusion possible without heavy investments in infrastructure development. Other winners were SCE Korea (Smart cities, smart living), with its forApp cloud solution checking for and improving mobile accessibility; Mawidy (Saudi Arabia, E-health), a one-stop-shop healthcare platform connecting patients, clinics, and health services; and Baobabooks (Switzerland, EdTech), an edtech platform supporting education at home and in the classroom through books written, illustrated and published by young learners themselves.
Need for a supportive ecosystem
By recognizing the crucial role of tech entrepreneurship in digital transformation, the Awards programme aims to support SMEs in scaling up their business activities, reach and impact through UN credibility and recognition, mentorship, partnership, and networking opportunities.

High-level public and private sector representatives underlined the importance of fostering SMEs and entrepreneurship in a series of online Ministerial Roundtables focused on the role of government in boosting digital connectivity through infrastructure, funding, skills, and content.

“The improvement of the start-up system is a very important part of our digital policy,” said Lithuania’s Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, Agne Vaiciukeviciute.

SME digitalization helps to invigorate wider private investment, as start-ups tend to be agile, closer to users on the ground, and quick to respond to market needs.

SMEs are ideally placed to experiment and innovate with new technologies such as blockchain, AI and robotics. Anders Aeroe, Director of the Division of Enterprises and Institutions at ITC, explained: “If SMEs are not connected to digital solutions, the benefits of these technologies will not be shared broadly across companies.”

Along with conducive policies extending access to connectivity and solutions, SMEs need a strong supportive ecosystem to become competitive.

“An innovation-friendly enabling environment is a key factor for SME success, along with making sure there is relevant content in local languages and providing access to the right digital skills and training to help entrepreneurs succeed,” said ITU Deputy Secretary-General Malcom Johnson.

“As we continue to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, innovative ideas to respond quickly to the challenges are what we desperately need, and innovations come mostly from SMEs – which is why they must be helped, more than ever, to develop their businesses and thrive.”
Shared insights
In the run-up to the Awards, the ITU Digital World SME Programme offered a series of expert-led masterclasses – all available online and open to anyone – aimed at building start-up capacity and sharing skills, best practices, and mentorship. This year’s topics included SME-corporate collaboration, bidding for government procurement opportunities, designing for accessibility, and customer service innovation. A further partner session with Switzerland Global Enterprise, “Beyond chocolate: cutting edge digital solutions from Switzerland”, highlighted innovative SMEs at the heart of the country’s ecosystem.

These included Calyps Saniaa, a solution powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that enables hospitals to anticipate patient flow and better allocate beds, prepare teams, and meet emergency needs; FQX, a fintech SME using blockchain infrastructure to allow businesses, especially SMEs facing liquidity challenges, to issue, transfer and trade electronic promissory notes; and Labster, offering virtual labs and science simulations for home, high schools and universities, to support online schooling or blended learning anywhere in the world.

“Thanks to ITU for shining a light on small companies like us!”

– Joaquin Patron, President, Urbit, ITU Digital World 2021 SME Award Winner, Digital Finance

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