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Decade of innovation: Looking back at the first generation of Grand Challenges grants

February 13, 2016

In 2003, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was still brand new, Bill Gates took the stage at the World Economic Forum and announced a new kind of initiative to recruit innovative thinkers to solve the biggest problems in global health. He said the Gates Foundation would invest $200 million to encourage the world’s leading scientists to think more ambitiously about fighting the diseases that struck the world’s poorest people. Working together with a range of partners, this funding was later increased to $450 million.

It would be called the Grand Challenges in Global Health, and it would be different from other grant programs because it would begin not with specific projects or specific scientists but with a list of big goals, or grand challenges. These grand challenges, such as inventing new vaccines or incapacitating disease-carrying mosquitoes, were designed to orient the scientific community around key roadblocks in the way of progress in global health. Scientists would then be invited to use their experience and genius to propose novel ways to achieve these big goals. “This initiative is about discovery and invention,” Gates said. “It is about finding specific solutions to the hardest problems.”

The first round of Grand Challenges grants was given in 2005, with 44 recipients receiving support from the Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Wellcome Trust of the United Kingdom. The initiative as a whole was then guided by a scientific board composed of scientists and public health experts from around the world.

The collection you’re about to read examines 14 of these projects in depth, to uncover what has been accomplished so far—and, just as important, what has been learned.

In some ways, these are historical documents; they tell the story of scientists and their science over a 10-year period. However, they are also living case studies; they reveal something about the unique process of doing research and development for global health.

The insights contained in these essays are especially relevant because Grand Challenges is still a thriving initiative, albeit one that has evolved considerably. The goal, though, is the same as it ever was: “finding specific solutions to the hardest problems.” By understanding how some of the first projects have progressed, we can see glimpses of the amazing advances that are possible and glean lessons that will inspire more solutions for more people over time.

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