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Sharing expertise, a unique experiment to nurture science to impact

  • Steven Buchsbaum, Apr 25, 2017

A bit over five years ago, we were exploring how we might better tap Indian scientists to solve not only challenges in India, but also more broadly contribute to health and development solutions around the world. We were looking for a chance to partner more directly, to share in defining the most pressing problems, to share in selecting the best ideas and innovators, to share in funding and supporting these innovators and to share in accelerating the fruits of this work towards impact. At that time, BIRAC only existed as a promise of a future, nimble organization that would be half a creature of the Indian Government and a private non-government organization - a promise that would bring the best two together to challenge scientists in India to better serve their fellow citizens. We explored many options with regard to how best to partner with the Department of Biotechnology, but by the time we had come to a shared vision and signed a new agreement with DBT on July 18 2012, a fledgling BIRAC now existed.

Our agreed approach for partnership with DBT was to place our shared trust - both the Gates Foundation and DBT into this new organization and create a new Program Management Unit capable of operating at the highest standards of excellence for a scientific strategy and funding implementation organization. With this, we at the Gates Foundation had the privilege of being the first International funder of DBT. With this launch, we began a race to bring this new experiment to life. We started our partnership working to launch two Grand Challenges simultaneously - one focused on tapping Indian expertise for new technologies to improve the toilet (the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC)) and a second looking to chart new ways to link agricultural innovations to nutritional outcomes. We found we had many challenges creating a new Unit, learning to work together, developing approaches to align our goals and our business processes, but there was a great deal of excitement in the work and a great deal of promise in what this could ultimately yield. For many of our first months we found ourselves taking advantage of the time difference to work around the clock - when the shift finished at the end of the day in India, work would be passed to Seattle at the start of our day and we would continue the progress passing what we had accomplished back at the end of our day, onward at the start of the next day in India.

Both of these first two initiatives provided important and specific results. As one example, the early work on the RTTC Challenge created opportunities for new India sanitation technologies which were showcased as part of the March 2014 Reinvent the Toilet Fair, which brought innovators and decision makers from around the globe to help chart a course for better sanitation for India. At the five year mark, there are a growing number of projects beginning to show results:

  • Empowered septic tank as decentralized wastewater treatment system, BITS Pilani, Goa: Due to concerted efforts of the Government of India, access to toilets for the people has significantly increased. These toilets though rely on septic tanks for holding wastewater, which ends up in an open channel, becoming a threat to hygiene and health of surrounding areas. The empowered septic tank created by the team at BITS Pilani is a simple system to manage septic tank effluent. The goal of the project is to encourage resource recovery by improving wastewater management. It employs electromechanical technology and is run on photovoltaic power; the system processes effluents immediately after they're discharged and utilizes electric power to change the characteristics of wastewater by manipulating its pH thereby making the effluents free of pathogens and helminthes eggs. This technology can be deployed in densely populated areas as it is encased in a container which eliminates human exposure to waste. It does not depend on hazardous chemicals and runs on mild voltage and current. The team is currently collecting data on a 100 person empowered septic tank to scale-up.
  • Designing on-farm participatory models of Integrated Farming Systems (IFS), Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu: Rice farmers often remain at the mercy of the monsoon. They face crop failure due to, drought or excessive rain. The team at Anamalai University piloted a study covering six villages in the district of Cuddalore that have similar agro-ecological identities. Aimed at addressing multiple challenges in the area of agriculture and nutrition, the pilot project employed IFS to improve crop productivity of farmers, as well as augment household diet diversity and improve nutritional standards of farmers. Farmers in the area were given strategies to diversify agricultural activities like dairy, bio-gas, mushroom, fish, poultry, silkworm rearing, or apiary along with crops to get a higher income. This allowed for effective recycling of waste products from the animals and birds as manure for crops and cuts down input cost to a major extent. This lowered their dependency on a single crop. The IFS model simultaneously addresses multiple problems such as low crop yield and poor nutrition of small-holder women farmers in the area. The team now plans to replicate and scale-up the model in other farming tracts in India and abroad.
  • Community level implementation of Domestic Solar Conduction Dryer (SCD), Society for Science (S4S), Maharashtra: This project aims to ensure nutritional food security to Indian women throughout the year. To counter post-harvest losses to farmers, the team from S4S developed the SCD, a low-cost electricity-free dryer that uses heat transfer technology based on conduction to dehydrate produce to increase their shelf life and saving a high percentage of agro-product losses. The dehydrated produce can be stored for up to a year; this prolongs the shelf life of seasonal produce ensuring food and economic security to participating women farmers. Through this project, the team at S4S was able to empower women farmers chosen in particular for the study and allowed them to sell and consume the dehydrated products in the off-season, increasing their income as well as improving dietary diversity.
  • Grand Challenges in TB Control (GC-TBC): This initiative addresses a major challenge in the field of TB disease management and control, by encourage innovation to promote treatment adherence. IKP Knowledge Park (IKP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with BIRAC and DFID are working together to identify, fund, and nurture technology driven solutions that will assist TB control. A few innovative projects selected under Call I are: Holistic TB Drug Adherence System Using Mobile Phones Augmented with Smart Hardware Apps in Pune, Maharashtra; and 99DOTS: Using Mobile Phones to Monitor and Improve Adherence to Tuberculosis Medications in Bangalore (Karnataka) and Patna (Bihar), India. 99DOTS has proven its efficacy and is being considered for scale-up by the Government of India.

Beyond the results of these specific early technology projects, we have also built a portfolio of projects that are taking a new and integrated approach to nutrition and stunting in India - focusing not only on survival, but also children thriving. In addition to specific examples of progress, perhaps more important, working together laid the ground work for the robust and effective partnership that exists today. At the five-year mark, the DBT - Gates Foundation partnership has grown into Grand Challenges India, with an outstanding team, joint sponsorship from DBT, the UK's Wellcome and the Gates Foundation; a robust set of priority initiatives, partnerships with the UK's DFID, USAID and Grand Challenges Canada around specific initiatives and perhaps most exciting of all - a very bright future and strong prospects of meeting the original goal ‑ to better tap Indian scientists to solve not only challenges in India, but also more broadly contribute to health and development solutions around the world.

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