As the the concept of the grand challenges inches closer to its own 15th birthday, some feel it’s time to ask: Is the model working?

Innovative solutions take 15 years to reach their full potential. For the “grand challenges” model of development, now over a decade old, that means the clock is ticking.

How long does it take to bring promising ideas from zero to scale? Ask those closest to the “grand challenge” model — a funding platform for crowdsourced innovations in global health and development — and they’ll balk at such a generalization. Then, more often than not, they’ll find their way to the same magic number — 15 years.

Developers in the health sector were the first to notice that the drug pipeline took about 15 years to produce new pharmaceuticals and vaccines, said Peter Singer, head of Grand Challenges Canada and one of the founders behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges — considered one of the first such platforms in global development.

Now approaching the 15-year mark, a handful of those early innovations are almost fully operational, Singer told Devex.

But are a handful of success stories enough to warrant the millions invested in grand challenges worldwide? As the the concept of the grand challenges inches closer to its own 15th birthday, some feel it’s time to ask: Is the model working?

Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, another early architect of the grand challenges model and now the director of the National Institute of Health, posed the question at the grand challenges’ 10th anniversary event in Seattle in 2013.

“Was the program actually a success?” he asked. Varmus conceded that the grand challenges show promise, but that ultimately, the jury is still out.

“We really don’t know,” he said.

One common complaint is that 15 years is a long time to wait for a return on investment. Even some supporters, including Bill Gates himself, worry the model is too focused on tech-savvy innovations, and possibly distracts from perennial barriers to development, such as health and sanitation infrastructure.

Still, advocates want more time and encourage patience as the next few years determine whether the grand challenges model will continue beyond its first generation of promising solutions.

“Anyone who has their doubts about the promise of the grand challenge model should give it,” Singer paused to do the math, “two, three more years.”

Coming of age

As the grand challenges model morphs with each new context and aid landscape, advocates are finding that, just like the challenges tackled via its open source platform, the grand challenges model is self-innovating with input from the global development community.

Even amid some doubts about its efficacy, the concept of grand challenges is gaining steam. Governments of the United States, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia and others have all integrated the platform into their foreign aid strategies, joined by emerging countries like Brazil, India, South Africa and Peru. Israel launched its own roster of grand challenges in 2011, and there are rumors that China is next.

Enthusiasm extends to the private sector, where pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Path, as well as more than 120 American engineering schools have adopted the open source platform model for innovation.

One way to think about it: improving the grand challenges model has become its own open sourced grand challenge.

Some innovators of the model are looking at its financing structure, Katie Taylor, deputy assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Devex.

Taylor pointed out that the grand challenges are public-private partnerships, and that USAID’s Global Development Lab hopes to use the flexibility of the private sector to change the structure, or the “entire grant-to-scale process” of the grand challenges, specifically funding innovation phase by phase — at intervals until it reaches full scale — rather than presenting a grant award all at once.

Changes to the funding structure, like breaking up large grants into many smaller ones, expands the platform to include fewer discovery science-based sectors. These smaller grants — like the USAID/Gates/Canadian-funded Grand Challenges Explorations — are a “more speculative, higher-risk, smaller money, larger portfolio” approach. They offer $50,000 to $100,000 grants around wider themes, like education, water security and sanitation, Steve Buchsbaum, deputy director of Discovery & Translational Sciences at the Gates Foundation, told Devex.

The Ebola crisis created an opportunity to test these smaller grants, and Wendy Taylor, director of the USAID center for accelerating innovation and impact, found the new model not only expanded the pipeline for other sectors, it sped up the procurement process as well.

Burdened by red tape — USAID’s average procurement cycle took 513 days in 2013 — the agency could tap the grand challenges model to speed up implementation, particularly in emergency situations. By contrast, the grand challenges creates a “quick turnaround” model, Taylor noted, which works especially well in crises like the Ebola outbreak, in which problems are both local and urgent. USAID’s Ebola Grand Challenge just awarded its third round of grants, the majority of which, Taylor told Devex, were designed to be “brought to scale in a matter of weeks or months.”

It hadn’t seemed obvious at first to use the model for crisis response, Buchsbaum said, but the benefits weren’t entirely surprising.

“When USAID tried it with Ebola, we had to ask, ‘can we use this crowdsourcing model not just for long-range or game-changing innovations, but just for bringing tools to bear immediately?’” he explained.

Fail better

As development donors apply the model in new sectors, the innovation timeline has shifted. According to research by Singer and others at Grand Challenges Canada, scientific innovations mature over a 15-year timeline, tech-based ideas take 10, and social or business service delivery improvements develop after five years or less. Still, some critics maintain the model — and funding for the model — focuses on flashy tech-based solutions, while health systems and poor infrastructure continue to obstruct impactful development.

Gates himself acknowledged at the anniversary event last November that focusing on new solutions ignores the barriers to existing ones, calling himself and other founders of the movement “naive about what it would take.”

At the same time, Buchsbaum pointed out that while the model reflects the needs of the industry, it isn’t meant to fix what’s wrong with development. Instead, it seeks to “create an ecosystem of development” where all stakeholders “clearly define challenges, look for the best ideas and have flexibility in procurement and a tolerance for failure,” he said.

The private sector is poised to fill a significant niche in that grand challenges ecosystem.

“Tolerance for failure” has not come easily to public sector donors, who must carefully guard against any perception they’re wasting taxpayer dollars. Private sector actors could have more luck with a model that requires risk tolerance, and they could emerge as critical partners for governments looking to build out a grand challenges program.

“It may be easier for a foundation to say, ‘1 out of 5 of our projects has been successful and potentially transformative,’ but that’s a harder thing for a public funder to say,” Buchsbaum said.

When governments join private companies and foundations in support of a cause, he added, governments begin to feel more comfortable with risk. When you’re part of a community, he said, “failure becomes easier.”

But it will take patience, he said, and another few years to determine whether the grand challenges model fails development, or inspires development to fail better.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.