THE BILL & MELINDA GATES Foundation has handed out the first grants under its Grand Challenges Explorations program. Launched in late 2007, the $100 million, five-year program extends the organization's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative started in 2003 by targeting smaller, earlier stage projects that explore novel ways to improve global health.
Phase I awards of $100,000 each were given to 104 researchers in diverse disciplines spread across 22 countries. What they have in common is a focus on drug resistance or the prevention and cure of infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis. About two-thirds of those selected—from among 4,000 proposals—are university researchers; others are employed by nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and companies.
"The quality of the applications exceeded all of our expectations," Tadataka Yamada, president of global health at the Gates Foundation, said last week when announcing the awards. "It was so hard for reviewers to champion just one great idea that we selected almost twice as many projects for funding as we had initially planned."
The Explorations initiative uses a streamlined process that limits applications to just two pages. To be selected, applicants need to show how their projects fall outside current scientific thinking and might offer significant advances, but they don't have to supply any preliminary data. Foundation and outside experts reviewed applications over about three months without knowing any scientist's credentials, geographic location, or affiliation.
Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Yen Wah Tong of the National University of Singapore received a grant for his work on developing molecularly imprinted polymeric nanoparticles to capture viruses. "We are grateful that the foundation is providing us with this opportunity to pursue an unconventional approach, which other funding agencies may have been reluctant to support due to the uncertainty in getting the desired results," he said after receiving the grant.
Projects that show promise in their first year may be eligible for another $1 million or more in funding. The Gates Foundation accepted proposals for a second round of Phase I grants through Nov. 2. Topics for a third round will be announced in early 2009.