Catalysing Global Innovations through the Grand Challenges Initiative 

Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that amongst other things, the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting aims to catalyse collaboration among researchers, funders, and other partners to accelerate innovation for impact in solving the world’s most urgent global health and development problems. This year, in Dakar, Senegal, the initiative marked its 20 years of “Grand Challenges” with new investments and a call to make Research and Development breakthroughs available more quickly and equitably

From Seattle, United States in 2005 to Washington DC, United States in 2006,  Cape Town, South Africa in 2007, Bangkok, Thailand in 2008, Arusha, Tanzania in 2009, back to

Seattle, United States in 2010, then New Delhi, India in 2011, Ottawa, Canada on 2012, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013, back again the third time to Seattle, United States in 2014, Beijing, China in 2015, London, United Kingdom in 2016,  Washington DC, United States in 2017, Berlin, Germany in 2018, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2019, New Delhi, India on 2020 and Boston, United States in 2021, which were both virtual because of the then COVID-19, Brussels, Belgium in 2023 and then Dakar, Senegal in 2023, the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting has certainly come stay. 

Although it was 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.

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 its inception in 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 while at the same time fostering a global innovation ecosystem in places where it will have the most impact. 

Essentially, the Grand Challenges family of programs stems from a century-old idea that crowdsourcing solutions to a defined set of unsolved problems can spark innovation and accelerate progress. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its Grand Challenges funding partners first used Challenges—open requests for grant proposals—in 2003 to focus attention and effort on pressing global health and development problems for those most in need.

2023 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Dakar, Senegal 

This year, the 2023 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting was held in Dakar, Senegal. It was 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.

This year, a slate of new initiatives to support locally led innovation were announced by the BMGF and its partners at the meeting and the investments came 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.

 According to the initiative, data shows that while overall health R&D funding is increasing, only about two per cent 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 five 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.”

Call to Close Critical Gaps in Funding 

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.”

Investment for AI Platform in Africa 

Also in Dakar, 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.

Expanding Access to mRNA Vaccine

Not done, 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 catalyse 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.”

Calls for New Proposals for LMICs

To further support scientists developing cutting-edge innovations in LMICs, the foundation and its partners also issued new calls for proposals. They include 

equitable AI for health in LMICs which involves 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 was 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.

Another proposal was the 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 maximise 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.

Also, another proposal was made for innovations in global health and development across other critical areas of need.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. 

In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. 

Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Mark Suzman, under the direction of Co-chairs Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, and the board of trustees. 


Since its inception in 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

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