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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Celebrating Ten Years of Grand Challenges

October 06, 2014

This week, in Seattle, the foundation is hosting the 10th annual Grand Challenges meeting. We will welcome more than 1000 scientists and partners to celebrate the 10th anniversary, reflect on what’s been accomplished, and issue new challenges to address some of the biggest problems in global health.

In 2003, Grand Challenges in Global Health was created to drive innovation and test novel solutions for health problems that disproportionately affect the world’s poor—a population that, historically, has not benefited from innovations in health.

The inspiration for Grand Challenges goes back more than a century. In 1900, German mathematician David Hilbert challenged the world to solve 23 unanswered problems in mathematics. In the 114 years since, Hilbert’s problems have encouraged some of the best minds to focus on solving–or in some cases refuting–the original problem set.

In global health, we want to do the same thing. We want to foster big breakthroughs that lead to innovations that can save lives and improve the health and well-being of the world’s poorest people.

In the past 10 years, the Grand Challenges model of funding high-risk, potentially high-reward concepts has inspired similar programs. There are now Grand Challenges in Development, Grand Challenges Explorations, Grand Challenges Canada, Grand Challenges Brazil, and Grand Challenges India.

The exciting thing about all of these initiatives is that they’re each stimulating markets for health and development innovation where previously there were none. And those markets are filling with private sector partners, NGOs, academia, and other funders. In short, the world has fostered a community of innovation for the world’s poor.

The Grand Challenges community isn’t just open to scientists. It is open to everyone because we want to encourage new ways of thinking about the biggest challenges, irrespective of credentials or expertise. Throughout history, transformational change in health and development has often been the result of unconventional thinking.

However, the paradox of innovation in global health is that it’s actually more difficult to develop products for developing countries than it is for wealthy countries. The technology hurdles are higher, and the delivery challenges are greater.

One of the most important things we’ve learned over the last decade is that just focusing on the technology isn’t enough. We also need to ensure that products are designed to work in developing countries, and that people will use them.

I am optimistic that we will resolve that paradox. The last 10 years have shown us that we can focus really smart people around solving the toughest problems in health that affect poor countries. The next 10 years should be even more exciting.

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