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Global Challenges Explorations – Betting on the Idea

SOCAP Global November 3, 2010

How can we spread the word and get more people to know about what we’re doing? Not what you’d typically expect to hear from someone at The Gates Foundation, but that’s exactly what Yun-Ling Wong, who leads their Global Challenges Explorations Program, asked me today. In 2003, Gates announced the start of their Grand Challenges in Global Health Program. In 2005, the first grants went out: 45 over 15 topic areas at an average size of 10million. Building that kind of portfolio means a lot of compromising and risk mitigation. Dr. Wong and her colleagues started thinking that there needed to be some room for fostering innovation and for taking chances. Thus, the Explorations program was born.
The initiative is turning the traditional grant giving model on its head: With a typical rate of 4,000 applicants every 6 mths, they aim to fund around 2%, but have no minimum or maximum. They partner with proven innovators to help vet the applicants. The judges get one gold star and a few silver stars. Gold stars are automatically funded, silver go into the pile for Dr.Wong to look at to round out the portfolio. Here’s the kicker: the applicants are name and organization blind…..and they are also only two pages. $100,000 dollar grants are given out based on the candidates ability to effectively communicate in two pages why their idea is a game changer. After that, they’re off. They have a two year runway to come up with evidence that they are ready for follow-on funding of one million and involvement by Gates. Until then, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, you’re on  your own. Investments have ranged from a local health worker in Nigeria to a Nobel laureate.
Seeing the successes and failures from the first wave of funding 18 months ago is allowing Gates to start asking questions. What are the key triggers for that success and failure? What is the role of a support network and potentially investment capital as they move into follow-on funding for those they see as having the potential to scale? Their deal flow is obviously beyond any rate of a typical VC, how do they serve as a pipeline? What is the role that governments around the world can play in helping to support these entrepreneurs? They have moved into topics such as sanitation, mobile services, urban innovation, and financial services and will continue to expand their reach. As they do, we’d love to help spread the word throughout the SOCAP network about this unique opportunity as well as to ask how can the social capital community get involved in helping to expand this initiative and partner effectively?
-Amy Benziger
Producer, SOCAP

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