A lab technician tests water at the Eco-Sanitary Manufacture Co. facility at the Yixing Industrial Park of Environmental Science and Technology in Yixing city, Jiangsu Province, China

Updated: 27th October, 2022

Grand challenges, grand solutions: celebrating innovation

How global calls for innovation are sparking progress on unsolved problems—because great ideas come from everywhere.

It’s finally October! For many of us north of the Equator, fall offers much to relish with the change of seasons. For the Gates Foundation, a unique treat tops the list: the excitement of new ideas. October is innovation month, an opportunity to celebrate outside-the-box thinking that spurs the world forward on big issues. That’s why this month, we’re featuring Grand Challenges’ calls for bold ideas.

Grand Challenges: Innovation for Impact

In 2003, Grand Challenges launched with a question: How can we seek out new thinking to old problems in global health? The Gates Foundation knew that there were amazingly smart, early-stage ideas sitting in brilliant minds that—with a little bit of funding—could become the bold, new solutions it was seeking.

What’s happened since then? In nearly 20 years, Grand Challenges funders worldwide have awarded 3,622 grants to investigators and innovators in 117 countries. Yet what’s most exciting is the intentional, increasing shift toward direct funding for locally-led programs. Country- and region-specific partnership initiatives (e.g., in Brazil, India, Africa, and most recently Pakistan) enable those who know the problems best—the communities and countries most affected by health and other inequities—to lead the charge on exploring new solutions.

Over time, it’s amazing to see what’s sprung out of these projects. The very first set of Grand Challenges grants supported the Wolbachia-modified mosquito work of Scott O’Neill, founder of the World Mosquito Program (check out our March blog).

More recently, a partnership between the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Chan Zuckerberg Biohub supported a project that led to Cambodia’s first detection of SARS-CoV-2 in a matter of days.

When we take a chance on science and new ideas, there’s no telling what’s possible.

 Lab materials for conducting tests at the Eco-Sanitary Manufacture Co. facility at the Yixing Industrial Park of Environmental Science and Technology in Yixing city, Jiangsu Province, China.

Credit: Gates Archive

Innovating in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WSH)

For different teams at the Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges can offer an opportunity to think—and invest—outside the box.

Innovation already lies at the heart of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WSH) team’s strategy, which aims to create a world where everyone has safe, sustainable sanitation. For many areas of the world, traditional flush toilets and sewage systems are inaccessible, unsustainable, expensive, and out of reach. A lack of waste treatment options and services exacerbates serious health risks to communities and the environment.

To find solutions beyond this system, the WSH team launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to create a new model or framework that doesn’t need running water but can make waste safe for disposal, no matter the location. Likewise, they’re funding decentralized waste treatment systems that can reclaim wastewater and make it safe to reuse.

Grand Challenges has built on the team’s focus on technology and innovation and tapped into their curiosity to see what other ideas could be out there. This initiative offers researchers and thinkers the opportunity to think differently about decades-old sanitation problems that persist today.

As Jan Willem Rosenboom, WSH team Senior Program Officer, shares, “The promise that something we didn’t know or hadn’t thought of could suddenly pop up to help transform or solve a problem—that’s what makes this process attractive and exciting.”

GPP and Grand Challenges

Where does Gates Philanthropy Partners fit in? Thanks to its donors, it supported two exciting Grand Challenges projects alongside the foundation’s WSH team. Both explore opportunities to tackle key gaps in existing water and sanitation systems.

The first is University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is rethinking ways to improve access to water supply for people living in informal settlements. In Africa and Asia, many people lack water in their homes, and some access it through kiosks. This model enables proprietors to buy a large supply of water, treat it, and sell it to people who need it. But the economic and physical cost adds up for families who lug gallons of water back to their homes on a regular basis.

To make water cheaper and available closer to home, University of Massachusetts Amherst is working to plug a hole in an imperfect system through a subscription water delivery service. Families can sign up with water kiosks to have small quantities of water delivered directly to their homes in discrete containers. This idea would make access more convenient and reliable, which enables families to use more water for personal hygiene, drinking, and cooking.

The second is PiQuant, a company based in South Korea that has a potentially game-changing technology that could help assess whether water or waste is contaminated or safe.

To make sure water is safe to drink or waste is safe to dispose of, we need to test the degree of bacterial contamination in both. For decades, there have been efforts to make testing of water supply and waste streams for fecal contamination faster and easier, but no one has succeeded. Today’s process requires taking water to a lab where bacteria can be incubated and counted—not easy to do in the field.

PiQuant is developing a new technology that could transform the water and waste testing industry, especially in areas without laboratories or tools to test on site. Their device aims to use light, a water sample, and a computer algorithm to test a community water supply and achieve instant, clear results. Our support is helping them refine the process to test treated water supplies, which, if successful as a product, could have a huge impact on community health around the world.

In 2003, we started with a question: How can we seek out new thinking to old problems in global health? The answer is clear, partnership. Partnership has and always will be essential to solving the world’s most complex problems.

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