Grand Challenges Exploration

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Gates Foundation wants to make safe sex more fun | 

Happy Condoms
Flickr, bnilsen

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks safe sex isn’t as much fun as it should be.

At least, that seems to be the gist of one request for a grant application from the world’s largest philanthropy as part of its Grand Challenges Explorations program. One of the goals for this round is to develop a better condom – and by better they basically mean a condom that doesn’t suck.

“It is a bit unusual,” said Stephen Ward, the program officer with the Gates Foundation administering the project.

In its request for proposals, the foundation opens with a detailed description of the global production of condoms (15 billion units per year), usage (750 million) and a ‘steadily growing market.’ When used properly, the Gates Foundation notes, condoms can protect females from pregnancy and both partners from sexually transmitted infections like HIV. They are cheap, ubiquitous and a great example of a ‘multi-purpose prevention technology.’

“The one major drawback to more universal use of male condoms is the lack of perceived incentive for consistent use.”

Yeah, they suck. They’re no fun. Continue reading

Gates Foundation calls for “wacky” new ways to say that aid works | 

Flickr, JSmith

Finding new ways to communicate

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially calls it the Grand Challenges Exploration program and it was initially launched to fund unorthodox — some might even say ‘wacky‘ — scientific research projects aimed at solving problems in global health and development.

They’ve funded research projects exploring how to use microwaves for treating malaria, make cell phones run on dirt, use gold particles to fight TB and other crazy-sounding things.

This week, the philanthropy is asking for a new round of proposals from all you creative types, including the standard calls to optimize crop yields and improve vaccines but this time adding a new not-so-technologically geeky category into the mix: Advocacy. Storytelling.

“We thought the timing was right for a call on aid effectiveness, said Tom Scott, head of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “It’s a tough economic environment and difficult choices need to be made.  At the same time, the story of aid and its effectiveness is not breaking through.  We hope that can change.”

Basically, the philanthropy wants to come up with some innovative ways to show that aid and development projects are succeeding and to counter the media’s tendency to do mostly “stories of corruption, waste and broken systems.”

They call this new Grand Challenge category of request for proposals Aid Works:

We want to find revolutionary ways to make these issues matter deeply to the global community. We’re inspired by projects that allow anyone– no matter where they live or what their background– to take part. We encourage projects that embrace the complexity of these issues. We admire work that surprises us with its emotional power, and that comes at the problem from entirely new angles.

Scott also posted further thoughts on Impatient Optimists, the Gates Foundation blog, explaining why they wish to emphasize success stories. In an email, he added:

“The idea of telling success stories is not new, but the need is more critical than ever.  The key for us is to encourage creativity and innovation in completely new and different ways.  I can’t wait to see what kind of ideas come in.”

The Gates Foundation will select up to 10 winning ideas, each of which will receive $100,000 and also be granted the opportunity to be further mentored by some French expert communicators known as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. (I wonder if you can opt out of that part?)

Using prizes, contests and competitions to solve major social, political and economic problems is becoming very popular, notes Tina Rosenberg at the New York Times. It’s not a new idea, Rosenberg notes, but it’s gained steam lately:

The change has come in part because of a flood of new philanthropic money (a lot of it from the tech sector) wielded by people looking for different ways of doing things, and because of a growing impatience with the limitations of in-house research and development and giving grants. The world brain pool has also never been larger.

More important, prizes work where other methods do not.   A lot of problems aren’t new — someone has already solved them or has solved something similar. By casting a very wide net, prizes find these people.

Gates Foundation’s next Grand Challenge: Vaccinating Plants | 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done a lot to boost the science and delivery of vaccines for human health and to assist in the fight against disease.

Now, the Seattle philanthropy would like to start vaccinating crop plants to help poor farmers.

Gates Foundation

Rwandan farmer Odette Mukanyiko

“Not many people realize it but plants have fairly sophisticated immune systems,” said Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery at the Gates Foundation.

Finding new methods to immunize crops against disease and pests, Wilson said, could significantly improve yields for subsistence and smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Such an approach could also greatly reduce the need for pesticides, he added, and likely provide greater barrier to bugs developing resistance.

Gates Foundation

Chris Wilson

“This couldn’t really be the same thing as the vaccines we use on ourselves or for animals, but it would be functionally equivalent,” Wilson said. “This will require some novel thinking.”

Looking for more wacky ideas

The Gates Foundation is now accepting proposals from scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors aimed at improving health, reducing poverty and generally making the world a better place. The $100-million-endowed project, which awards $100,000 grants for first-time innovators, is called Grand Challenges Explorations program. Continue reading

Microwaving malaria and the other latest winners of Gates Foundation research grants | 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded its latest set of grants supporting innovative scientific research aimed at solving problems in global health.

The grants, awarded through the Gates Foundation’s $100 million Grand Challenges Exploration program, for this go-round appear to favor novel methods aimed at combating malaria.

Like using microwaves to treat malaria infection. Or using the smell of your feet to mislead mosquitoes.

“Finding solutions to persistent global health problems is a difficult, lengthy and expensive process,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This program, Wilson said, “was designed to tap the innovators of the world by providing resources needed to explore bold ideas that are typically too risky to attract funding through other mechanisms.”

Here’s the press release issued by the Gates Foundation and a story by Donna Blankinship of the Associated Press in Seattle. First-time grant winners get $100,000 to pursue their ideas and if they show promise are eligible to receive up to $1 million for “Phase II” studies.

Three projects, including the one exploring the use (in mice only right now) of microwave irradiation to kill malaria parasites, received Phase II funding, the philanthropy reported. Blankinship asked Wilson about the idea of using microwaves as a malaria treatment. The purpose of Grand Challenges, he emphasized, is to support high-risk — some might even say wacky — ideas.

“That’s probably not going to work,” Wilson said. “But if it did work, it would be pretty stunning.” Continue reading

Old drug could be a big new deal for fight against malaria | 

Flickr, Gustavo

This scientific finding got a little bit of media attention, but deserves more:

A cheap drug, called Ivermectin (or brand name Mectizan), that Merck originally made for dogs may become a useful new weapon against one of the world’s biggest killers, malaria.

It was discovered many years ago that this drug also works against other parasitic worms that cause river blindness (onchocerciasis) and elephantiasis (filariasis). Merck, apparently unaware that it is supposed to be an evil drug company, has for more than 15 years been donating this drug to poor countries in Africa to fight these debilitating diseases.

Malaria is also caused by a parasite. In a study funded by a Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations grant, researchers at Colorado State University explored if the drug might also work against the malaria bug.

The study is published in this week’s American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (which you can’t read because the scientific publishing community thinks they can get you pay to read it … and which may account for the relatively low number of news articles on this amazing discovery).

Here are a few other reports of note on this:

Karen Grepin’s Global Health Blog Maybe Now People Will Care About Onchocerciasis

Bill Brieger’s Malaria Free Future blog Novel idea, but can it be scaled?

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

Gates Foundation

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. Continue reading