Government seed grants encourage innovation on global health problems


Marcos Fiovavanti, of the Ecuador-based "Fundacion In Terris" group, talks about the "Earth Auger Toliet" on display at the "Reinventing the Toliet" Fair, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Seattle, which is part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation competition to reinvent the toilet. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
November 23, 2012

What if pregnant women in poor, remote regions of Pakistan could be fitted with wristbands that monitor their vital signs and send an electronic alert to a doctor at the first sign of trouble?

Would impoverished farmers in Kenya be more diligent about getting their children vaccinated if they were given a bar-coded card redeemable for seeds and fertilizer each time they bring their child in for a scheduled shot?

And how about helping fishermen in Senegal cultivate a once-common native species of freshwater prawn that — apart from being nutritious — happens to thrive on a type of snail that is spreading the deadly tropical disease schistosomiasis among Senegalese children?

These ideas are among 68 out-of-the-box proposals that the Canadian government will be providing seed grants to test over the next 18 months.

The awards, which were announced this week and provide each grantee with $100,000, are the latest example of a new trend in global development funding.

Largely inspired by the venture capitalists who transformed the technology industry by identifying and investing in promising start-ups over the past two decades, many governments and large donor organizations are now trying to apply the same principles to the problems of global health.

Aid dollars that were once almost exclusively plowed into major projects or well-established research institutions are increasingly going to relatively small-scale innovators, including both not-for-profit and for-profit groups.

The Gates Foundation is perhaps best known for popularizing the approach. But governments such as the United States and Brazil now include some component of it in their international aid programs.

“We’re trying to create an ecosystem where you’ve got lots of bold ideas that may work but are risky, so you need to do a proof of concept and then scale up the ones that are most successful in practice,” said Peter Singer, chief executive of Grand Challenges Canada, an independent agency created by the Canadian government to run its grant program.

Funded with $225 million over five years, the agency has given out more than 100 18-month $100,000 “proof of concept” grants since it launched in May 2010.

At the end of the initial period, grantees can apply for a second grant of up to $1 million — which must be matched with funds from another source — to begin scaling up their idea. The hope, Singer said, is that the most viable projects would then attract the more substantial private funding needed to operate at full scale.

Wouter Deelder, a partner at the consulting firm Dalberg Global Development Advisors who specializes in global health, said that applying the venture-capital model to development projects has both advantages and challenges.

“I support the boldness of looking for innovative new ideas and casting a really wide net,” he said. “I think what’s important to constantly keep in mind is what is the cost-effectiveness of these ideas.”

Deelder added that just as crucial as coming up with smart ideas is doing the “less glamorous, behind-the-scenes” work of getting regulatory approvals from governments, developing supply chains and training health workers.

“We often take it for granted if we build it they will come. But that’s not how it works. It’s not just having the right product. It’s having an enabling environment and the support system to actually get it from the lab to the patients.”

Singer agreed. And he said another difficulty was balancing the desire to address a broad range of health issues against the risk of dissipating resources.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for maximum impact,” he said.

The projects granted funding this week run the gamut from cutting-edge research efforts to decidedly low-tech enterprises.

Several seek to employ cellphone technology. An initiative in Bangladesh will use cellphones to register births in 22 hard-to-reach rural districts, then build a database that sends parents text message reminders when it’s time to vaccinate their children.

Researchers in Indonesia will try a new low-cost DNA-based test for dengue fever.

A group in Haiti will install $200 “EcoSan” toilets that turn human waste into revenue-
generating compost. The hope is that local entrepreneurs will be inspired to follow suit, creating jobs while improving sanitation and reducing cholera.

A project in Uganda will pay youths to collect and sort discarded organic waste, deliver it to a plant for conversion to fertilizer and alternative fuel, and then sell the product to households and institutions.

Seventeen of the grantees were researchers based in Canada.

But most of the awards are going to recipients in developing nations. This was by design, Singer said.

“If you’re an innovator in a low- or middle-income country, you’ve got very little support,” he said. “These are very high-risk. No private capital would really support them at this early stage.”

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