Gates Foundation Seeks Out Nontypical Research To Fund
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will give $100 million in small doses to researchers doing novel medical-research experiments -- part of a new way to use the Web to reach medical researchers who might be missed in a traditional grant-selection process.
The Gates foundation, the world's largest private philanthropy, said Wednesday that it will grant 104 scientists and experimenters in 22 countries $100,000 each for research into areas that include how to prevent or cure HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. The $100 million earmarked for the program will be distributed over five years.
The grants are a fraction of the Gates foundation's roughly $3 billion in annual giving from its $35 billion total endowment. But they could be an important test of how to provide smaller grants to a greater number of researchers in a shorter amount of time than is standard in medical research.
The program, which has been planned for a year and is called Grand Challenges Explorations, aims to operate more along the lines of Silicon Valley's investment approach, in which venture capitalists provide relatively small amounts of capital to a large number of ideas in the hope that just a few will succeed and become the next Microsoft or Google.
'This is a high-risk program,' said Tachi Yamada, president of global health at the foundation. 'We recognize that most of these things are not going to pan out.'
Traditional medical-research funding typically involves lengthy reviews and much larger amounts of money. The Gates foundation's more-traditional health-related grants, for instance, usually range between $2 million and $3 million and can take nine months or more to be awarded.
The foundation culled the 104 grantees in the new program from 4,000 applicants that filled out a two-page application over the Internet. It encouraged experimenters to propose offbeat or novel approaches to problems. Sixty people inside and outside the Gates foundation chose the winning applications. The selection group included Nobel Prize winners, though no members of the group had specific expertise in the medical areas addressed by the program. The group wasn't told the identity of the applicants.
In a year, the selection committee will review the progress of each grantee. Those that look promising can apply for grants of $1 million, foundation officials said. Dr. Yamada said he expects about six of the 104 grantees will show enough promise to be considered for the larger grant.
The first round of grants will go to students and scientists in countries including the Netherlands, Singapore and South Africa. Most of the grantees are in the U.S. The ideas include a 'stealth weapon' for destroying HIV and for using mosquitoes as 'flying syringes' to vaccinate people.
Dr. Yamada said the quest to find a vaccine for HIV/AIDS would benefit from the program. The Gates foundation is one of the largest providers of research funds into HIV/AIDS vaccines.
'Most of the approaches that have been tried to date and that are in the pipeline have been from a sort of orthodox way of looking at vaccine,' Dr. Yamada said. 'Some novel approaches need to be tried.'
Robert A. Guth
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