Grand Challenges at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

An example of Open Innovation applied to Non-Profit Organization and Beyond

“The Gates Foundation and its Grand Challenges partners hope to inspire a large global network of initiatives designed to foster innovation to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world.”

In the 21st century, it is not news that open innovation is being adopted as a strategy for accessing insights, changing innovations process and using collective intelligence to solve complex problems. Today, I want to highlight how non- profits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (“Gates Foundation”), also benefit from open innovation. The Gates Foundation is on the path to solving some of the world’s “Grand Challenges,” such as poverty, world hunger, developing countries health problems, as the organization leverages the participation of diverse stakeholders and seek to solve problems that current public and private sectors aren’t able to solve. The use of open innovation is crucial to the foundation since it helps to generate questions worth answering, to better solicit solutions to open-ended questions and to help the foundation in deciding charity allocation.

Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in history. It has given away $33.5 Billion, principally to eradicate disease and hunger among the developing worlds. The foundation and its “managers” have made huge progress. But Bill and Melinda have described themselves as “Impatient Optimistic.” Sometimes it is difficult to imagine how much the foundation can accomplish in just 2 – 10 years, considering the considerable challenges global health and poverty issues. But the Grand Challenges program was one of the solutions they had to use collective intelligence from governments, companies, and foundations to solve some of the hardest global health and development problems. The Grand Challenge has demonstrated the foundation’s vision and several successes already solving the global health issues: Grants to Logistimo (Bulletin Board” For Broadcasting Vaccine Supply/Demand) and Nexleaf Analytics (Remote Monitoring the Cold Chain Distribution of Vaccines) are perfect examples of how the open innovation idea has spurred commercial solution for vaccines. Those two ideas came through the open-ended Grand Challenges program, evolved into thriving companies that are revolutionizing immunization in low-resource environments using innovative data tools.


While the foundation has started to collaborate with local government and policymakers on various levels, I believe this can be leveraged more in the near and medium terms. Currently, there is Grand Challenges India/China/Korea, which is jointly run by the government of India/Korea/China and other partners. And there’s a Grand Challenges Africa, which offers seed money to innovators from across the continent. I do think to do more local level crowdsourcing and diverging the money into smaller amounts in support of more ideas could help with the foundation’s philanthropic portfolio. Working with other foundations such as USAID, Chan-Zuckerberg, or other partners can increase the awareness of the Grand Challenge to a broader audience and solicit more solutions. Besides the current Grand Challenges, I also wonder if the foundation can allocate some of its energy towards other challenging topics such as education, world hunger, and women rights, issues that can benefit from the open innovation method and process.

There is the potential debate of whether the foundation should make a centralized decision about allocation of funds or rely on the “Grand Challenges” to address issues previously might not be raised. I also do wonder in healthcare, would a thinktank/conference with the best medical professional be more efficient than the crowdsourcing of ideas. The challenges are difficult on the global scale but also the subject itself requires a certain level of medical expertise that an average person might not be able to contribute.

Ultimately, the grand challenges fit within the “Impatient Optimists” motto of the Gate and Melinda Foundation. It utilizes open innovation and crowdsourcing to motivate scientists, governments and private funders investing in innovation not for innovation’s sake, but rather to “solve the greatest challenges facing our civilization.” As the foundation writes people tend to underestimate how long new discoveries will take – but we also underestimate how revolutionary they’ll be. I am looking forward to seeing the big ideas from the Grand Challenges program change the world.

(774 words)


Buchsbaum, Steven. 2018. “Grand Challenges: Fueling Innovation In Global Health And Development”. Impatient Optimists.

“Grand Challenges For Development | U.S. Global Development Lab | U.S. Agency For International Development”. 2018. Usaid.Gov.

Heilpern, John. 2018. “Why Bill And Melinda Gates Call Themselves “Impatient Optimists””. Vanity Fair.

Klugman, Keith. 2018. “Ending The Pandemic Threat: A Grand Challenge For Universal Influenza Vaccine Development”. Impatient Optimists.

“Project Retrospectives | Grand Challenges”. 2018. Gcgh.Grandchallenges.Org.

Steven Buchsbaum, Kedest Tesfagiorgis. 2018. “Building The Grand Challenges Community”. Impatient Optimists.



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Student comments on Grand Challenges at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

  1. Open innovation makes great sense in resource-constrained, audacious organizations such as the Gates Foundation. I love the “impatient optimists” mentality and applaud the foundation for opening its doors to speed up innovation. Despite hearing snapshots of past Grand Challenge successes, I do not have clear insight into the scale of this initiative or how it is implemented. Are the contests targeted or open-ended? How are winners rewarded? How does the Grand Challenge interact with existing foundation initiatives? I would have loved a more nuanced analysis of how open innovation coexists with the foundation’s existing framework. That being said, I do think this essay shines a positive spotlight on the Gates Foundation’s creative approach to social impact.

    Lastly, I would push back on the author’s question about whether or not non-medical professionals can contribute to global health challenges. Comprehensive solutions require professionals from all academic disciplines. Of particular value to global health are those who have spent time in the field, rather than solely in medical conferences. For this reason, I’m supportive of the Grand Challenge as it is applied to healthcare.

  2. The Grand Challenges seem well suited to the non-profit sector where transparency does not erode competitive advantage, and altruism can drive interest alongside financial reward. That said, I do wonder if the lack of profit motive and competitive capital allocation can result in outsized waste and bloated budgets or even rent-seeking on the part of grantees. For example, I recall Bill Gates’ previous toilet and condom challenges, but I don’t believe any major innovations or success emerged from them. Does open innovation allow for non-expert or long-shot ideas to move farther than they ought to? On the flip side, perhaps Mr. Gates does not mind if his money is allocated inefficiently, as long as there is potential for immense societal impact. I imagine he would argue that lives inefficiently saved are better than lives efficiently not saved.

  3. Thank you for your insightful article. The Grand Challenges program seems like an excellent way to spur innovation to transform pain areas like poverty and health. I wonder how more precisely the Gates Foundation encourages open innovation. Are there any explicit funding competitions or crowdsourcing drives? What process does an organization go through to secure funding? Could the Gates Foundation crowdsource it’s decision about what projects to fund? I would love to learn more about the successes to date of the Gates Foundation!

  4. Really interesting piece. From my perspective, it seems as though these Grand Challenges are especially useful in soliciting ideas suited to local needs. For instance, by operating a Grand Challenge China run by the Chinese government, the Gates Foundation helps to create an environment in which its initiatives are tailored to the actual needs of the Chinese people.

    A few questions / comments emerge from my reading of your piece:

    1. How does the Gates Foundation determine how to prioritize its Grand Challenges? In other words, when does it decide to run a Grand Challenge focused on a certain country or global health issue? You state that you think that the Gates Foundation could consider Grand Challenges related to education, world hunger, and women’s rights, but how would the solutions that come out of these Grand Challenges be prioritized against the Gates Foundation’s existing initiatives?
    2. Regarding the question you raise about Grand Challenges vs. centralized decisions — I agree that there needs to be a balance in these situations between expert influence and open sourcing of ideas. I would argue that to some extent, these Grand Challenges already incorporate some expertise in assessing the value of submitted solutions (e.g., for healthcare, presumably a medical professional judges the competition’s entries). From my perspective, I think that this is sufficient to ensure that appropriate expertise is incorporated in the Gates Foundation’s decision-making process. Accordingly, I would argue that maintaining the current structure of these Grand Challenges is worthwhile given that leaving the competition open to both experts and laypeople alike facilitates more creativity in idea generation.

  5. Interesting article – this left me wanting to learn more. I’d imagine there are some ideas presented through the Grand Challenges program that are worthwhile but don’t receive funding because they don’t align with Gates Foundation’s criteria (e.g. they are hard to scale). I wonder what happens to those projects. If they are abandoned, there might be an opportunity for the Foundation to find more partners to keep those ideas alive. I’d also be curious whether some kinds of problems are easier to solve with open innovation than others.

  6. You articulated very well the promise and yet potential pitfall of open innovation in this sector.

    Your question about whether the expert body in the field (e.g. medical) would be better suited to spearhead the initiative, which I think is an excellent one. Should the Gates Foundation work together with expert bodies to develop their own open innovation program instead?

    Another concern I have is the over-indexing of investment to solutions from open-innovation. I still think there’s a merit to top-down solution from established R&D organizations. However, open-innovation can play a bigger role in helping to identify emerging grand challenges to ensure solutions that emerge from centralized R&D could be applied in a relevant way at the grassroot level.

  7. Thanks for this insightful paper. The Gates Foundation, and others in the space including orgs like the Acumen Fund and Echoing Green, are all doing very interesting work using open innovation. However, the danger with relying solely on these Challenges — as with crowdsourcing more broadly — is the inability to control the quality and variety of ideas. Given that Gates and other foundations often have return thresholds of 5% as well as dedicated teams staffed across their main impact verticals – Gates being Global Health, Global Development, US, and Global Advocacy – I struggle to see how open innovation can effectively produce enough ideas to match each of their internal objectives. One major risk with crowdsourcing is the threat of special interest groups dominating the broader pool of ideas, which is directly in conflict with having specific impact goals.

    Other potential concerns I have with your proposal:
    1) Do foundations and other NGOs have the adequate resources to properly assess and investigate the ideas that come from the crowdsourcing method?
    2) How do you inexpensively insure that participation, and thereby the probability of increased quality, will be high via the open innovation method?

  8. This is an excellent application of open innovation. Open innovation is a powerful tool to generate a large variety of ideas. However, I believe, in this case, the more important function of open innovation is to increase attention and generate buy-in. The foundation addresses global issues which can only be solved if society appreciates that these issues exist in the first place. In many cases, scientists, regulatory bodies, governments, private companies, or customers need to be willing to change their habits. This is often much more difficult than providing the funding. Thus, open innovation could be a tool to generate buy-in which results in an organized approach of different stakeholders.

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