UNICEF has announced that SayCel, a Nicaragua-based start-up mobile connectivity company founded by NYU’s Edwin Reed-Sanchez, faculty member in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts, is one of five companies worldwide selected to receive funding through UNICEF’s first round of investments from its Innovation Fund.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund applies a venture capital approach to source solutions for issues like transportation, identity, wearable technology, finance, and personal data. SayCel technology enables communities within Nicaragua that have non-existent, inadequate, or expensive cellular networks to have their own affordable cellular utility and local 911 service.

SayCel’s technology grew out of research Reed-Sanchez began within ITP’s Tower of Power class, which was developed in 2014 by ITP instructor Benedetta Piantella and designed to instruct students on how cellphone networks work. Low-cost Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology – the world’s most commonly used mobile standard - became the focus of Reed-Sanchez’s ITP thesis, which provided the core technology for the SayCel solution.

SayCel is also funded by the RiskEcon Lab at NYU’s Courant Institute, where the company collaborated with members of Rhizomatica, a Mexico based non-profit running 16 indigenous community networks, and with FreeRadio Brazil.

“Edwin’s work with SayCel is the perfect example of how small, innovative ideas can grow into solutions that can change people’s lives dramatically, and we’re thrilled that UNICEF has recognized the potential of SayCel’s solution,” said Allyson Green, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts, who provided a Dean’s Grant to Piantella for the Tower of Power class. “SayCel’s motto is ‘Communication is a human right,’ which I think perfectly encapsulates not only what SayCel is doing, but their motivation for doing it, and that makes us tremendously proud.”

“It's amazing how much NYU has supported my work, from Stern to ITP to Courant, it just shows how much NYU as an institution is committed to innovation as a way to solve some of todays biggest problems,” said Reed-Sanchez, an ITP alumnus.

Using SayCel, residents along the Nicaraguan coast can call other regions and countries much more affordably than with the existing telecom system. SayCel also provides maintenance and training to community governments so they can independently manage the cell network. This enables local governments to have a sustainable communications utility that ultimately lowers the cost of communication for citizens, improves security through a local 911, assists in growing the local economy, and increases the efficiency of local government and international development projects.

"We immediately recognized the prospect and potential for the technology and activities of SayCel to provide a community-based platform for mobile data collection and curation, environmental and otherwise, as a means of empowerment, and as a medium for affordably providing essential risk mitigation and micro-financing services to underserved rural populations,” observed David Mordecai, Courant Visiting Scholar who co-leads RiskEcon Lab.

Samantha Kappagoda, a Courant Visiting Scholar and Risk Econ Lab co-leader, added, “sustainably affordable accessibility can be critical to stabilizing and improving the economic situation and quality of life for those in rural communities.”