Gates Foundation Celebrates 20 Years of “Grand Challenges” With New Investments and a Call to Make R&D Breakthroughs Available More Quickly and Equitably

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Commitments focus on advancing equitable access to artificial intelligence (AI) and vaccines, and catalyzing innovations that address women’s health

A slate of new initiatives to support locally led innovation was announced today in Dakar by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its partners at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting. The investments come with an urgent call for countries to step up funding to make the research and development (R&D) of health and development innovations easier and faster, and to make the next generation of scientific and technological breakthroughs relevant and accessible to all.

Data shows that while overall health R&D funding is increasing, only about 2% is directed toward diseases that affect the world’s poorest people. In 2020, the annual funding gap for product development targeting poverty-related and neglected diseases was estimated at US$2.6 billion.

“Over the past two decades, global investments in a pipeline of innovative solutions helped reduce childhood deaths under 5 by half,” said Moussa Balde, Senegal’s minister for higher education, research and innovation. “But lifesaving innovations still take too long to reach those who need them and are not always designed with equity from the start. Grand Challenges Senegal continues to invest in the country’s brightest scientists and innovators, and we are pleased to be part of this global network of Grand Challenges partners investing in locally led solutions to ensure innovations, including in health, education, and agriculture, benefit everyone equally.”

Launched in 2003, Grand Challenges, the foundation’s flagship innovation program, focuses attention and funding on pressing global health and development problems that affect the world’s poorest people, using open calls for proposals to crowdsource potential solutions.

In an address to the more than 1,400 scientists, policymakers, and donors attending the annual meeting, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, called for the world to spend at least US$3 billion more every year on global health and development R&D in order to close the critical gaps in funding for neglected diseases.

“New health technologies have the potential to save millions of lives, but R&D funding is going in the wrong direction,” said Gates. “Donors need to step up their commitments to ensure health innovations reach those who need them more quickly, so more lives can be saved.”

Today, Gates announced that the foundation is investing US$30 million to support a new artificial intelligence (AI) platform in Africa. The platform will provide African scientists and innovators with the technical and operational support they need to turn promising ideas into scalable health and development solutions. It is a step towards ensuring the benefits of AI are relevant, affordable, and accessible to everyone—particularly those in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)—and that these critical tools are developed safely, ethically, and equitably. The foundation will continue to work closely with technical partners and governments to further advance the platform and identify opportunities to jointly advance the use of AI for health and development.

Yesterday, the foundation also announced new investments aimed at expanding access to a novel mRNA vaccine manufacturing platform that gives countries, including Senegal and South Africa, the technology to develop and manufacture their own vaccines. mRNA technology is considered a potential game-changer for a range of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, and Lassa fever, which disproportionately affect people in LMICs. This additional local vaccine manufacturing capacity will support LMICs to develop low-cost, high-quality vaccines that address their most urgent health priorities.

“What started as a single program funded by the Gates Foundation and its partners has grown into a family of initiatives and partnerships across national borders, fields of study, and sectors that catalyze research, products, and partnerships to save and improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Kedest Tesfagiorgis, deputy director, global partnerships and Grand Challenges at the foundation. “Our community of brilliant innovators is proof that a great idea can come from anywhere and be supported by the funders, policymakers, and advocates needed to move ideas into the laboratory and, ultimately, to the people who can most benefit from them.”

Grand Challenges is supported by the governments of India, Brazil, the United States, and Canada, as well as a growing number of countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Since 2003, partners have invested US$1.6 billion to support more than 3,800 projects in 118 countries—from new strategies to improve gut health in moms and children to reinventing the toilet for improved sanitation to reimagining drug discovery research for malaria, tuberculosis, and neglected tropical diseases.

To further support scientists developing cutting-edge innovations in LMICs, the foundation and its partners also issued new calls for proposals in the following areas:

  • Equitable AI for health in LMICs. Building on a recent Grand Challenge (GC) to develop global health and development solutions in LMICs using AI-enabled large language models (LLMs), GC partners issued a request for proposals of up to US$5.5 million to help advance the development of robust, locally relevant, AI-empowered tools to expedite decision-making, policy pathways, and implementation by frontline health workers and policymakers. The call is led by GC Brazil, GC India, GC Ethiopia, GC Senegal, GC South Africa, and GC Africa, with support from GC Canada, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the Pasteur Network, and the Gates Foundation.
  • Women’s health R&D to unlock the potential of half the world’s population and unleash a powerful engine for progress. The Women’s Health Innovation Opportunity Map 2023 is a new report outlining 50 equitable, high-return opportunities across the R&D continuum to maximize research and innovation, investments, and global action in women’s health. To encourage innovations and ideas laid out in the Opportunity Map, the foundation announced a new request for proposals that will provide up to US$3.6 million in funding.
  • Innovations in global health and development across other critical areas of need.

The full list of new requests for proposals can be found here.

The 2023 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Dakar is hosted by the Global Grand Challenges network of partners and the government of Senegal, and sponsored by Grand Challenges Canada, the United States Agency for International Development, Wellcome, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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