Grand Challenges


A chat with NY Times’ David Bornstein about ‘solutions’ journalism | 

Abigail Gampel

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is what many would consider a rare bird — an optimistic and forward-looking journalist.

Bornstein is also one of my favorite writers on aid and development issues, for the New York Times Opinionator column and as an author of a number of important books including one on the anti-poverty scheme known as microfinance, The Price of a Dream, and his more recent book How to Change the World, a look at the social enterprise movement.

On Thursday, it was announced that Bornstein and his NYTimes colleague Tina Rosenberg were among the winners of 90 new grants, each of which starts out at $100,000, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program.

That wasn’t quite right: Bornstein later responded, after the awards were announced, that he and Rosenberg will not receive any of the grant money and are only collaborating on the Gates-funded project at Marquette University.

“We are cooperating with Marquette. But they prepared the proposal and they will be doing all the work and receiving the full grant.”

Here’s what the Gates Foundation said in announcing the grant winner: “The Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, USA, will partner with David Bornstein (How to Change the World) and Tina Rosenberg (Pulitzer prize-winning The Haunted Land) to build the first Wiki-style platform that packages solutions-journalism (specifically NYTimes Fixes columns) into mini-case-studies for educators around the world to embed in, and across, the curriculum.”

I missed the nuance there. Sorry about that.

Bornstein, who contacted me after this post was published, said the NY Times prohibits them from accepting grant money (for work done at NYTimes) and they are unpaid collaborators with Marquette, allowing them to repurpose their columns and to help them think through the process.

The Grand Challenges Exploration program was created by the Gates Foundation mostly to fund ‘wacky’ (aka high risk) scientific projects and that’s mostly still what it has supported among its 800 projects funded to date.

Gates Foundation

One example pictured at right: Agenor Mafra-Neto and his colleagues are building inexpensive laser bug sensors that accurately count and identify flying insect pests from a distance. Because it’s always good to know exactly how many and which types of bugs there are.

Anyway, you can read more about the latest round of wacky scientific winners at the philanthropy’s website.

I’m going to focus on Bornstein, as an example of how the Grand Challenges initiative has expanded its scope to include funding communications efforts that show “Aid is Working.” Continue reading

How a passing comment on an old medical test won a $100K Gates grant | 

Tom Paulson

Gates Grand Challenges award winner Kathleen Bongiovanni demonstrates how a simple idea may save the lives of millions of premature babies

Earlier this week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the latest 100 winners of $100,000 grants from its Grand Challenges Exploration program aimed at supporting high-risk, creative approaches to improving health and fighting poverty in poor countries.

Celebrated for funding “wild” and “wacky” ideas, this year’s batch of Gates Grand Challenge winners included proposals to develop, as the AP reported, unmanned drones to deliver vaccines, tattoos for monitoring pregnancy and a “tuberculosis breathalyzer.”

The Seattle Times followed up with an overview of the three local winners:

  • Kathleen Bongiovanni, a program manager at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, won for proposing a simple test to identify premature babies.
  • Two immunization technology improvement teams at PATH also each won a $100,000 Gates grant. Lauren Franzel of PATH won to do research using bar codes to improve vaccine delivery logistics. PATH’s Shawn McGuire and Nancy Muller got support for work aimed finding better refrigeration techniques during vaccine transport in poor countries.

None of these three local winners’ projects sounded too wacky to me.

PATH has long been a leader in creating new vaccine technologies so not much surprise or wackiness or wildness there.

Bubble check diagnostics

No, the wildest story here is about how Bongiovanni got the idea for her project and applied for the Gates grant despite a bit of skepticism about her chances from more experienced colleagues.

“It was just a passing comment,” she explained. Bongiovanni works in program administration for a project focused on respiratory diseases caused by premature birth at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. She is, in fact, pretty low on the totem pole. Her mentor there, Dr. Tom Hansen, is an expert neonatalogist and, well, an old guy.

During a routine meeting, Bongiovanni overheard Hansen talking about the ‘old days’ and this abandoned method of testing babies for respiratory distress by combining routine amniocentesis fluid with alcohol.

Hansen mentioned it in passing, she said, as he went on to discuss more sophisticated, modern analytical means for diagnosing respiratory distress in newborns.

“Basically, you’re just looking for foam,” Bongiovanni said. “It’s a beautifully simple and cheap test.”

Continue reading

Gates Foundation’s latest global health gizmo grant | 

Sorry, I know alliteration indicates some kind of mental pathology (as does the love of puns) but I couldn’t resist that headline.

Flickr, MikeBlogs

Star Trek tricorder

At least I didn’t report this news like my former employer, the Seattle PI, as Canadians, Gates Foundation want a real tricorder. For the six people in the world who don’t know what a ‘tricorder’ is, it’s a futuristic medical device used by the cranky medical officer Bones in the TV show Star Trek to diagnose maladies on the final frontier.

Oh, and the actual news? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working in partnership with a Canadian version of the foundation’s Grand Challenges program, has awarded $32 million to 22 research teams to develop new, inexpensive “point-of-care” diagnostic devices.

It’s fairly easy for the media to do stories about fighting disease in poor countries (though we don’t do it enough, as compared to celebrity news or politics). What’s often neglected is the lack of an ability to even know what disease it is you are fighting in the developing world. Is the fever due to malaria or flu? Does this person with HIV also have TB or not?

The need for inexpensive and more reliable disease diagnosis in poor countries is massive.

“New and improved diagnostics to use at the point-of-care can help health workers around the world save countless lives,” said Chris Wilson, Director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Our hope is that these bold ideas lead to affordable, easy-to-use tools that can rapidly diagnose diseases, trigger timelier treatment and thereby reduce death, disability and transmission of infections in resource-poor communities.”

The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges program was launched to fund high-risk innovative scientific and engineering research aimed at solving problems of disease and poverty in poor countries. Grand Challenges Canada is an independent organization, inspired by the Gates program but funded by the Canadian government to do pretty much the same kind of thing.

Of the 22 research projects awarded by the two organizations, only 10 of the 12 groups funded by the Gates Foundation website appeared to be listed as of this writing. The Canadians also only appear to list a portion of their grantees rather than all of them. I’ve asked for one link listing all 22 but haven’t seen it yet.

Here are three grant recipients highlighted by the Gates Foundation:

  • Seventh Sense Biosystems, a company located in Cambridge MA, is developing TAP—a painless, low-cost blood collection device which aims to allow easy, push-button sampling of blood. This simple collection process would reduce training requirements and enable diagnostics closer to the point-of-need.
  • David Beebe and researchers at the University of Wisconsin are developing a sample purification system that seeks to better filter and concentrate biomarkers from patient samples. This system will be designed for use in impoverished settings.
  • Axel Scherer of the California Institute of Technology, along with collaborators at Dartmouth College, will develop a prototype quantitative PCR (qPCR) amplification/detection component module—a low cost, easy-to-use technology that can rapidly detect a wide range of diseases.

Other news stories based on this announcement:

Boston Globe Gates Foundation awards grant to (beantown biotech)

AFP Gates, Canadians offer $32 million for research

Electronic nose “smells” TB, competes with rats | 

An odd-sounding scientific experiment — a battery-powered “electronic nose” –  has been awarded a $950,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada.

The grant, which was announced on Monday at the annual Grand Challenges Meeting in Delhi, India, was one of nine previously selected projects to receive up to $1 million in additional funding.

In addition to development, the new grant will be used to test how effectively the hand-held e-nose can diagnose TB from a patient’s breath. “Just like the police can take the roadside breathalyser test right to your car window, this device could take the diagnosis of TB right to the door of the hut in your village,” Peter Singer, the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, told AlertNet.

Flickr, CarbonNYC

Why we need a new test

Standard TB diagnostic tools need to be used in a lab setting, which can pose barriers for people in resource-poor areas where TB is more common. Though there was much excitement about the World Health Organization-approved Gene Xpert TB diagnostic test last year, the test has faced implementation problems. One concern is that the Gene Xpert cannot be used at the point-of-care. Continue reading

Gates Foundation opens new round of requests for wacky ideas | 

Flickr, Vicki & Chuck Rogers

Mad Scientist

Well, maybe not too wacky.

The Gates Foundation is accepting proposals from scientists, engineers, inventors or anyone with a creative idea aimed at solving some key problems in global health.

This is Round 7 for the Grand Challenges Exploration program, a $100 million initiative which offers $100,000 grants in seed money for “unconventional” ideas on:

Synthetic biology? Hmmm, I guess that has to do with combining biology and computers, or some form of engineering technique that allows researchers to manipulate genes and proteins like they might jigger with bits and bytes, or microprocessors and microchips. Continue reading

NYTimes (following Seattle Times) examines changes in Gates Fdn’s Grand Challenges | 

The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. today took a close look at the impact of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s scientific research stimulus project called Grand Challenges in Global Health, and why so many of its projects are losing funding.

The Seattle Times’ Sandi Doughton explored the same ground a month and a half ago, even without getting the kind of special access to Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation that McNeil got (I know, because I was refused access to the same meeting McNeil, the only journalist, was allowed to attend).

And, in my opinion, Sandi’s article was much more revealing of the real reaction many in the scientific community had to the changes in the Gates program. But more on that in a bit.

McNeil, who I consider one of the world’s leading global health reporters, got some good quotes from Bill Gates –  “We were naive when we began” — about having too high expectations when it came to the pace of progress hoped for with their Grand Challenges project. Continue reading

More Gates Foundation science support for global health, mobile technologies | 

Flickr, by 96dpi

Mobile phone

The Gates Foundation today announced it had awarded $6.5 million in a new round of funding to 65 scientific teams in 16 countries to pursue innovative global health technologies, including an emphasis on mobile phone applications.

At the same time the announcement went out, Bill Gates was speaking in Washington, D.C., at the mHealth Summit, a meeting promoting the expansion of web-based mobile technologies into health care. The word “mHealth” represents a huge range of endeavors, many of them focused on developing country uses. Microsoft Research, which has a number of projects targeting mHealth, co-sponsored the conference with the NIH.

As it turned out, the live webcast of Gates’ talk at mHealth didn’t work … which makes me hope that they work out the daily techno glitches we all experience with our phones and computers before they start depending too much on these gizmos to save our lives and improve the health of the poor. Continue reading

Bill Gates: Collecting the next round of wacky ideas | 

Flickr, Vicki & Chuck Rogers

Mad Scientist

Why does the Gates Foundation keep funding all those wacky ideas like trying to use infrared light to confuse mosquitoes or manipulating bacterial spores into serving as vaccine delivery modules?

Because they think sometimes it works best to turn the routine scientific review process on its head.

“Science grant applications are usually approved by consensus review,” notes Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery for the Seattle philanthropy. Seeking consensus works to make sure research focuses on what the experts in a field see as the most promising approaches, Wilson says, “But it’s also highly averse to new, innovative and out-of-the-box ideas.”

Bill Gates says he wants out-of-the box ideas. Continue reading