Behind every great innovation is, first and foremost, an ambitious idea. And in many instances, a great innovation would not have come to life without a measure of outside support and belief in its potential from the start.
Nearly fifteen years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched Grand Challenges—a landmark initiative to fund promising early-stage scientific innovations that could prevent, treat and cure diseases in the developing world. As part of the launch of Grand Challenges, we, along with partners at the Wellcome Trust, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Institute of Health Research, invested nearly half a billion dollars to kickstart 44 ambitious projects. In the more than a decade that has followed the initial 2005 investments, Grand Challenges has expanded to represent a growing network of independent, but collaborating, national Grand Challenge programs with investments in 87 countries.
I was there almost from the start, joining the foundation after serving at the US Department of Defense’s DARPA and then later at the US Department of Homeland Security seeking to create a DARPA-like agency at the Department of Homeland Security. Today, as Deputy Director of the foundation’s Discovery & Translational Sciences team, I am proud to help manage what we call “audacious bets” that may yield game-changing solutions.
The foundation teams working in vaccines were some of the earliest and strongest advocates of discovery and translational science, and have several successes as proof. Just look to two awards to Logistimo (Robust Mobile Component for Logistics (mLMIS) and Bulletin Board" For Broadcasting Vaccine Supply/Demand) and one award to Nexleaf Analytics (Remote Monitoring the Cold Chain Distribution of Vaccines). These two awardees that started as mere technological concepts, through support from the Grand Challenges program, evolved into thriving companies that are now heading off a revolution to improve immunization in low-resource settings using innovative data tools. Even now, the Vaccine Delivery team is an active leader in the initiative, having organized two open calls for the latest Grand Challenges Explorations cycle—an offshoot funding mechanism now in its 10th year. One call seeks novel approaches to improve the timeliness of routine immunization, and another call through the Gates foundation’s India Country Office seeks to improve immunization data systems.
Taken together, the scope and reach of Grand Challenges is something to behold. A broad network of partners now exists, as do companion calls for applications in other regions of the world operating under the Grand Challenges name. There is a Grand Challenges India, which is jointly run by the government of India and other partners. And there’s a Grand Challenges Africa, which offers seed money to innovators from across the continent. Co-funding and in-kind donations from agencies such as USAID, DFID and the Wellcome Trust have also helped to deepen partnerships across the development space and increase the amount of available funding. Across this network, more than 2,200 individual projects have received funding to date.
Recently, I have felt that the expansion of this partner network and subsequent increase in direct funding to innovators—more than the innovations themselves—may prove to be the most impactful and valuable element of Grand Challenges. There have also been a few unexpected, yet welcomed surprises produced by the initiative. A recent foundation survey of nearly 4,000 applicants found many applicants were inspired by reviewing the Grand Challenges’ open calls to innovate in new ways. A case in point for the Grand Challenges rallying cry—great ideas come from everywhere—is the story of the Argentinian car mechanic whose invention, the Odon device, went into proof-of-concept trials through Grand Challenges funding.
In 2018 and beyond, Grand Challenges is set to continue its central role in the foundation’s philanthropic portfolio. For me, it is both a source of pride and excitement. I feel confident that the initiative’s smart approach of combining scientific innovation with the social science context will continue to prove hugely beneficial in the collective effort to tackle our greatest global health and development challenges.
To explore awarded grants and learn about new opportunity, please visit the Grand Challenges website.