The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has dedicated over US$550 million dollars to their belief that one bold idea could change world health forever. The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiatives facilitate the development of innovative ideas to treat or prevent human diseases that affect the world’s poorest people. One of these initiatives is the Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE), which provides seed money to support clever new approaches that might overcome persistent barriers to global health.

GCE grants fund high-risk ideas that are not likely to be considered by more typical funding sources. They encourage scientists to get creative, and even unorthodox, in their approaches to tackle health issues that plague much of the world. The rationale is that the chronic obstacles that inhibit advances in global health are most likely to be overcome through fresh and original approaches.

The two-page application with no requirement for preliminary data is appealing. The short format of GCE grants is meant to promote creativity and to encourage unique ideas from a variety of sources, including the unconventional or non-traditional. Anyone can apply regardless of education or experience, and there are no stipulations on citizenship or residency.

The review process also distinguishes GCE grants from many other grants. Applications are accepted during two cycles each year and reviewed within 4 months of submission. Applicant information is hidden from reviewers in an effort to promote the idea over its source. Reviewers also remain anonymous to applicants, and are proven visionaries with innovative contributions to science or medicine. Each reviewer is given the freedom to choose the grant ideas that they feel hold the most promise. Applicants get ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. There is no scoring or detailed feedback, which are common from other granting sources, which keeps the process agile.

Pointers for GCE grant applications

  • Focus the grant clearly within one of the GCE topic areas. The topics for the next round (round 4) are listed below.

  • Define an experiment that will determine whether the proposed idea will eventually become successful.

  • Clearly explain how this idea varies from current or conventional approaches.

  • Let the idea evolve. Even with the little feedback provided by this review system, make thoughtful changes to a previously rejected grant and resubmit it. Many successful grants are resubmissions.

Awardees receive US$100,000 for one year; after this period, grants showing real promise may be selected to receive a million dollars or more. Grants must focus on one of the GCE’s specific areas of interest in global health. Generally, these involve infectious diseases, including malaria and HIV, or immunology, since these are relevant to the most urgent needs in the developing world.

Topics for round 4

  • Create low-cost diagnostics for priority global health conditions.

  • Create new ways to induce mucosal immunity.

  • Create new vaccines for diarrhea, HIV, malaria, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

  • Create new tools to accelerate the eradication of malaria.

Grant proposals for round 4 will be accepted online from September through to November 2009 at http://www.grandchallenges.org/Explorations.