$100 Million, 104 Scientists: Few Winners?

Posted by Ragu on Oct 21, 2008
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The program, which has been planned for a year and is called Grand Challenges Explorations, aims to operate more along the lines 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.

Both VC style spread-the-risk funding and InnoCentive style crowd sourcing are commedable deviations from traditional approaches that place too much unwarranted trust on the ability of the funding agency to select a winner.

Yet, they are still missing something about giving small amounts to a large number of people where the motive is not to just find a big winner (which may or may not happen) but to create a network of people interested in the same challenge (or cause or idea) and support them over a period until they begin to sustain as a community. It requires much less money than $100 Million and much more people than 104. It also requires everyday heros willing to guide the community and the right technology to facilitate the networking.

This approach requires a fundamental shift: from focusing on the challenge to focusing on the people interested in it. From organizing the funding process around the challenge to organizing all the people who will work on it. The benefits of this approach are much more than finding breakthrough solutions. It creates a community that will keep innovating for a long time reframing and redefining the original challenge according to the changing reality. More importantly, it would transform the lives of the innovators making them be-the-change heros serving as examples to others.

Still, Gates Foundation must be lauded for taking the new approach. Only that should stop viewing it as "more risky" and explore the various benefits of the approach. How is losing $100 Million and gaining a committed community more risky than losing $500 Million and have nothing to show for it? CharityFocus has taken many such "risks" and the resulting communities relish their  failures and successes everyday.

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