A new challenge
Friday, October 10, 2014
Ten years ago the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began divvying up the money for what it hoped would be a novel approach to the task of solving the world’s health problems. The new programme’s organisers, led by Mr and Mrs Gates themselves, had identified 14 “grand challenges” in the field—from “preparing vaccines that do not require refrigeration” to “developing a genetic strategy to deplete or incapacitate a disease-transmitting insect population”—and had invited suggestions from the world’s scientists for specific projects of a sort that might not otherwise get funded, which might meet these goals. Not surprisingly, since the foundation had announced a year earlier that it was making $200m available to pay for all this, hundreds of research groups lined up to dip their bread in the gravy.
A bold idea then, perhaps bordering on the naive. And that word was used more than once by Mr Gates, in a tenth-anniversary review meeting of the Grand Challenges in Global Health programme, as it is known, which was held this week in Seattle. He and his fellow board members had hoped their philanthropic version of venture capitalism would lead to breakthroughs in the search for vaccines and other treatments for widespread and destructive diseases such as malaria.
A decade—and $1 billion—later, neither the original project nor its offspring, Grand Challenges Explorations (which gives seed money to young researchers rather than relying, as the original did, on established names) has thrown up any of the blockbusters that real venture capitalism requires to counterbalance the numerous, inevitable failures. Undaunted, though, Mr and Mrs Gates used this week’s meeting to announce a new set of challenges, this time spreading the net wider than the strictly science-based suggestions the programme has encouraged until now.