Gates Foundation funds research into dirt-charged cell phones and other wacky ideas

Harvard's Erez Lieberman-Aiden and her dirt-powered battery

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday announced the latest winners in one of its more interesting initiatives aimed at stimulating creative, novel solutions to problems in global health.

The project is known as Grand Challenges Explorations and today the philanthropy announced 88 winners of $100,000 grants aimed at supporting unorthodox approaches to health problems afflicting the poor.

“One bold idea is all it takes to catalyze new approaches to global health and development,” said Tachi Yamada, outgoing chief of the global health program at the Gates Foundation.

The Seattle philanthropy was this year especially interested in supporting new — Yamada likes to say “wacky” — ideas aimed at furthering the goal of polio eradication, exploiting the ubiquitous cell phones for use in low-resource communities and reducing the massive health problems caused by inadequate sanitation in poor countries.

Donna Blankenship at the AP has a good story on the new grants, starting with a California scientist looking for ways to boost the natural production of ammonia in sewage waste to kill human pathogens. The scientist in the AP story does note, however:

“The whole motivation is to take this material and make it safe. It’s not going to be nicer. It’s still going to be gross.”

This round of Grand Challenges Exploration winners, which are spread across 25 countries, were selected from more than 2,500 proposals in a 100 countries. One of the additional goals the Gates Foundation has in this initiative, beyond supporting high-risk projects that might now otherwise get research funding, is to support science done in many of the countries intended to benefit from the research.

Cell phone digitizing paper records

Winners (listed here, PDF file) include research teams in Ghana, China, Kenya, India and Ecuador. Interestingly, few this time went to any local scientific teams. Maybe our local scientific teams are already too busy with all the previous grants awarded them by the Seattle philanthropy.

The sole local winner was VillageReach, an organization based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood that started out in Mozambique helping local folks develop propane gas businesses tailored to support local immunization efforts. The Gates grant will allow them to explore using mobile phone imaging to digitize paper records.

Luke Timmerman at Xconomy talked to Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery at the Gates Foundation, about the program and its recent shift in emphasis from its previous iteration known just as Grand Challenges. The Seattle Times in November reported on the changes, and some of the hard feelings in the scientific community, when the foundation decided to scale back its ambition and no longer support big science projects.

As Wilson told Xconomy:

“What we’re doing is re-balancing our portfolio…. When early stage discovery research began at the foundation, it was almost 100 percent in the Grand Challenges in Global Health program. It was like putting all your eggs into 45 baskets. What we’ve done is rebalance our portfolio so we put 20 percent of our discovery money in this program.”

Another thing the Gates Foundation says it is counting on is failure, Wilson says. They expect most of these projects to fail, he says, and that’s fine. Risking failure is the key to finding new solutions to chronic problems, Wilson says.

Applications for the next round of wacky ideas are now being accepted through May 19. Here are the Gates Foundations interests and instructions.

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Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.