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Building the Grand Challenges Community

  • Steven Buchsbaum, Kedest Tesfagiorgis, May 3, 2016

When Bill Gates announced the Grand Challenges in Global Health program in 2003, he said a lot of things about what he hoped the program would accomplish. He said, "There is great potential for science and technology to solve persistent global health challenges." He said, "This initiative is about discovery and invention." He said, "Millions of lives could be saved."

What he did not say is, "The Gates Foundation and its Grand Challenges partners hope to inspire a large global network of initiatives designed to foster innovation to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world." And yet one of the clearest successes of that first investment in Grand Challenges is the way the idea has captured the imagination of other funders - other funders who decided to make their own innovation programs. There are now many open innovation initiatives in the field of global health and development. In just the past year, the family was joined by Grand Challenges Africa and Grand Challenges China, creating opportunities for innovators drawn from more than a quarter of the global population.

This year, those of us who run these programs realized that we've reached a tipping point. There are so many innovation programs that it's no longer just nice to check in with each other once in a while, as we've been doing, to share lessons we've learned and evaluate new ideas; instead, it's critical that we agree on how to work together to advance the greater project of innovating to improve lives. We believe not only that each individual program will run more effectively and efficiently with help from its partners, but also that with the right kind of collaboration, the whole of these programs can be greater than the sum of its parts.

This kind of collaboration was the theme of our annual Learning and Evaluation meeting, which took place last week in Washington, DC. We focused on what we are calling "public goods," the systems and tools we can put in place to help each other and leverage our combined resources. We plan to devote small working groups to each of the public goods we've identified, including representation from a mixture of Grand Challenges programs, to make sure the entire community is given a voice in how this work unfolds.

Let us dig into just three of the public goods we discussed to give a sense of what they are and what they can do for the Grand Challenges endeavor in the future.

Sharing Data: In total, there are now many thousands of innovators working on thousands of different projects as part of Grand Challenges. However, each individual Grand Challenges partner keeps its own data about its awardees, and those data aren't housed in one place and don't fit together in any case. That means we can't get basic insights into the nature of the global portfolio, so we can't make adjustments or set priorities with confidence. One resource we are pursuing is a data repository that will let each partner continue collecting the data that it needs to function while linking up the key elements so that we gain a shared understanding of the work we're doing together. Moreover, this shared repository will help to power the InnovationExchange, which will be an open membership platform that will provide a portfolio of useful data services to the innovation community.

Sharing Tactics: Some Grand Challenges partners have been doing this work for a long time and have run dozens of calls for proposals, refining their approach along the way as they learn what works best. Some of the brand new partners have yet to run their first call. We need a platform on which we can share the tactics that have produced the best results historically while at the same time encouraging new entrants to do new types of experiments. More importantly, we need an ongoing mechanism for collaborating on tactics, because many of the newer partners, especially those from the Global South, will face similar challenges, and they'll be more effective if they're able to work them out together in real time.

Innovation Marketplace: With so many innovations in separate pipelines, there are some potentially transformative ones not getting enough visibility and therefore enough funding to get through the development process and get delivered. Last year, under the umbrella of the United Nations' Every Woman Every Child initiative, we launched an innovation marketplace to identify the most promising innovations in women's, children's, and adolescent's health and link them to additional funding sources, including businesses, nonprofits, governments, and wealthy individuals. This kind of shared infrastructure helps every Grand Challenge program lift up its most successful innovations.

These new innovation initiatives keep popping up because global-development funders all over the world see the value of innovation. Together, we can increase that value by agreeing to share what we know - and by fostering the public goods to do so in the most effective ways possible.

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