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Encouraging innovation

A Grand Challenge: Unorthodox Research Ideas


A couple of years ago, our foundation established Grand Challenges Explorations, a $100 million program designed to encourage innovative thinking and support unconventional research projects in global health.

What I especially like about Grand Challenges Explorations is that it is open to anyone with a good idea, and that it supports projects that likely wouldn’t be able to find funding elsewhere.

It’s exciting to see proposals from young investigators such as graduate and postdoctoral students. For example, a student at UCLA received a grant to investigate the use of chewing gum to detect malaria biomarkers. Another recently-funded research project involves the use of chocolate “medicine” that may reduce the ability of the malaria parasite to feed on human blood. Both ideas may be long-shots, but imagine if chewing gum and chocolate medicine could help solve some of the most intractable health problems in the developing world.

Proposals are selected based on the quality of the idea and its potential for impact, rather than the experience of the applicant. As a result, we’re seeing applications coming from all around the world—from a wide range of organizations and individuals. I’m encouraged by the interest we’ve seen from places where the health challenges are the greatest. We have funded great ideas from scientists in 30 countries including India, Nigeria and Zambia.

For projects that show outstanding potential, a second grant of up to $1 million is available. The idea is to seed promising research projects for long enough that they will eventually be eligible for funding from more traditional grant sources.

In just the last two years, we’ve received more than 12,000 applications from over 130 countries, and have made 262 grants. Between now and May 19, people can submit applications for the next round of grants, which will focus on four areas of research: low-cost cell phone based applications for priority global health conditions, new technologies for the health of mothers and newborns, new technologies for contraception, and new ways to protect against infectious diseases.

A lot of innovative research is being done by established researchers and companies to address health and medical challenges in developing countries. But that creativity and innovation can also come from anyone, anywhere. I’m looking forward to seeing what new thinking emerges in the next round of grant applications, especially from otherwise untapped talent.


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