Marking a decade of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges contagion

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spawned a lot of new initiatives and ideas aimed at making the world a better place, but perhaps nothing has caught on as a strategic concept as much as the idea of the Grand Challenges.

The fact that the buzzword ‘innovation’ is annoyingly popping up everywhere these days? It may have started here.

Ten years ago, the still-somewhat neophytic philanthropist Bill Gates was inspired by the story of the German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943) who revolutionized mathematics by identifying key problems to solve. Following Hilbert’s lead, Gates created the Grand Challenges in Global Health program – an initiative specifically created to give grants to scientists, inventors and others willing to work on high-risk projects that held out potential for dramatic, creative and innovative solutions to diseases of poverty.

Nobelist Harold Varmus, left, recalls the early days of the Grand Challenges program with Trevor Mundel, head of global health for Gates Foundation.

Nobelist Harold Varmus, left, recalls the early days of the Grand Challenges program with Trevor Mundel, head of global health for Gates Foundation.

“It was an adventure,” recalled Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, director of the National Cancer Institute and the chair of the founding board and committee created by the Gates Foundation to launch the Grand Challenges for Global Health project.

This week in Seattle, Varmus joins a thousand or so scientists, engineers, inventors and other ‘innovators’ to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this program that has now funded more than 1,600 such grand challenge projects in 80 countries.

It has also spawned all manner of imitations worldwide, from Grand Challenges Canada, Brazil, India or wherever to a Grand Challenges USAID to less-directly related initiatives like this Grand Challenges for Engineering deal. As Peter Singer of the Canadian version noted: “It was the ‘TEDxitization’ of Grand Challenges.”

Yeah, it’s a meme and it’s catching on. But what is it really? What makes a challenge grand?

“At first, we just sat around trying to figure what that meant,” Varmus told the GC (aka Grand Challengers) crowd at the Westin Hotel. “We had an extraordinary degree of freedom.”

Initially, the focus was just on global health. Varmus and his team, including then-director of global health for Gates Rick Klausner, surveyed the scientific community to seek their thoughts on how to define the grandest challengers and best attack them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of the funding in the first go-round went to leading American and European scientists with big labs.

Despite some big checks (many of them $1 million, some in the tens of millions) no big discoveries, solutions or amazing revelations seemed to be emerging. Yiming Shao, a Chinese expert on HIV/AIDS who, like Varmus, was there for the early days, said Bill Gates came in and gave them at best a passing grade.

“He gave us a C,” Shao said. In addition to the concern that they were putting extremely large eggs into too few baskets, he said Gates was also concerned that most of the funding was going to Americans or other Westerners. The best ideas, the GC motto says, come from anywhere. But the money wasn’t going much to innovators in the developing world.

So this morphed into another Gates program, Grand Challenges Exploration, that was created to give out smaller, more manageable grants to less-established researchers, and also to those in the developing world. That change has greatly expanded the programs reach and led to some projects close to fruition – literally, in the case of the nutrient-enhanced Ugandan banana.

The Grand Challenges program has also been expanded to go beyond its original focus on health, added Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery and translational sciences for the foundation. It’s still the dominant focus of the program, Wilson said, but as the world’s biggest philanthropy has expanded its portfolio into agriculture and other critical arenas for poverty mitigation so has the GC portfolio.

“We’re always learning and evolving,” Wilson said.

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Tom Paulson

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 or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.