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4 Years of Grand Challenges Explorations = Innovative Ideas That Keep on Giving

  • Ling Wong, Oct 3, 2012

What do these things all have in common? Identifying gut bacteria that can predict a child's response to the polio vaccine. Reinventing toilets to use biodegradable film instead of water. Improving vaccine delivery with cloud-based cell phones. Stamping leaves to monitor crop health. Although wildly different topics, each of these ideas were identified and funded through the Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) grant initiative because they have the potential to change the world. This fall, we're celebrating the initiative's 10th call for ideas and are looking back at how far we have come since launching in May 2008.

In May 2008, we started GCE to fill a gap we saw in creative ways to provide seed funding to high risk ideas – ideas that if they actually worked could have a tremendous impact on saving lives. We were piloting new ways to identify and select innovative projects and were exploring new topics to address our priority disease areas. Recently, we created a topic seeking innovations in improving the effectiveness of oral polio vaccines towards our goal of global polio eradication mentioned in Bill's Aug 27th blog. One notable project, led by David Relman from the Stanford School of Medicine, will develop a way to identify children who may not respond to the polio vaccine based on the composition of their gut bacteria when they are vaccinated.

Over the last few rounds, we have learned a lot about how to use the GCE tool to be effective not only in health related topics, but also to seek novel ideas for vaccines, agriculture, communications, and sanitation. Improving vaccines is one part of the issue, another part is once we have a vaccine, how do we make sure it gets to patients and is still effective. Storage and delivery of temperature-sensitive vaccines where refrigeration and electricity are unreliable are huge issues as well. These concerns led to the recent call where GCE partnered with WHO and PATH to solicit ideas to optimize immunization systems. One of the ideas we supported came from Anup Akkihal of Logistimo in India who is developing a cloud-based mobile supply chain platform that allows real-time data to be accessed by mobile phone and web-based applications to help maximize immunization coverage for children worldwide.

Another area where we have found great innovations is in improvements in sanitation that create better ways to dispose of human waste or convert it into energy. Everyone has to poop, so why shouldn't we make this universal activity more useful around the world? We recently funded Virginia Gardiner, CEO of Loowatt Ltd, who led a team in creating a toilet that uses biodegradable lining instead of water, allowing easy waste removal and conversion into biogas. This and other projects on better sanitation systems were showcased last month in our Reinvent the Toilet Fair. Read Bill Gates's take on this important and unusual fair in his August 14th blog.

In the agriculture space, finding new ways to protect crops from disease is critical for our work. In May 2012, we awarded 26 grants to researchers focused on crop protection, including a great idea by Hideaki Tsutsui of the University of California Riverside. Hidaeki is developing a stamp which, when printed directly on maize leaves, tells you if the plant has a disease. If this stamp works, it could greatly increase early detection of crop diseases and improve our agriculture yield.

So, these are just some of the great ideas we have supported recently, and we look forward to seeing even more great ideas this round.

This fall we're celebrating the launch of Round 10! The new topics span across health, development and communications. Below is a list about each of the topics with a link to the topic description. Over the next few weeks, we'll have a special feature about each topic, why we are so excited about it, and why you should be too!

We want to eliminate and control neglected tropical diseases

We seek innovations to increase the productivity of women farmers in the developing world

We want new techniques for discovering anti-malarial drugs

We need novel ways to communicate the value of global aid

So what are you waiting for? What's your great idea?

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is part of the Grand Challenges partnership network. Visit www.grandchallenges.org to view the map of awarded grants across this network and grant opportunities from partners.