Dr Steven Buchsbaum, Deputy Director, Discovery & Translational Sciences, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shares his five years experience of collaborating with DBT & BIRAC in defining the most pressing problems, selecting the best ideas and innovators, supporting innovators and accelerating the fruits of the work towards impact.
A bit over five years ago, we were exploring how we might better tap Indian scientists to solve not only challenges in India, but also more broadly contribute to health and development solutions around the world. We were looking for a chance to partner more directly, to share in defining the most pressing problems, to share in selecting the best ideas and innovators, to share in funding and supporting these innovators and to share in accelerating the fruits of this work towards impact. At that time, BIRAC only existed as a promise of a future, nimble organization that would be half a creature of the Indian Government and a private non-government organization – a promise that would bring the best two together to challenge scientists in India to better serve their fellow citizens. We explored many options with regard to how best to partner with the Department of Biotechnology, but by the time we had come to a shared vision and signed a new agreement with DBT on July 18 2012, a fledgling BIRAC now existed.
Our agreed approach for partnership with DBT was to place our shared trust – both the Gates Foundation and DBT into this new organization and create a new Program Management Unit capable of operating at the highest standards of excellence for a scientific strategy and funding implementation organization. With this, we at the Gates Foundation had the privilege of being the first International funder of DBT. With this launch, we began a race to bring this new experiment to life. We started our partnership working to launch two Grand Challenges simultaneously – one focused on tapping Indian expertise for new technologies to improve the toilet (the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC)) and a second looking to chart new ways to link agricultural innovations to nutritional outcomes. We found we had many challenges creating a new Unit, learning to work together, developing approaches to align our goals and our business processes, but there was a great deal of excitement in the work and a great deal of promise in what this could ultimately yield. For many of our first months we found ourselves taking advantage of the time difference to work around the clock – when the shift finished at the end of the day in India, work would be passed to Seattle at the start of our day and we would continue the progress passing what we had accomplished back at the end of our day, onward at the start of the next day in India.
Both of these first two initiatives provided important and specific results. As one example, the early work on the RTTC Challenge created opportunities for new India sanitation technologies which were showcased as part of the March 2014 Reinvent the Toilet Fair, which brought innovators and decision makers from around the globe to help chart a course for better sanitation for India. At the five year mark, there are a growing number of projects beginning to show results:
Beyond the results of these specific early technology projects, we have also built a portfolio of projects that are taking a new and integrated approach to nutrition and stunting in India – focusing not only on survival, but also children thriving. In addition to specific examples of progress, perhaps more important, working together laid the ground work for the robust and effective partnership that exists today. At the five-year mark, the DBT – Gates Foundation partnership has grown into Grand Challenges India, with an outstanding team, joint sponsorship from DBT, the UK’s Wellcome and the Gates Foundation; a robust set of priority initiatives, partnerships with the UK’s DFID, USAID and Grand Challenges Canada around specific initiatives and perhaps most exciting of all – a very bright future and strong prospects of meeting the original goal to better tap Indian scientists to solve not only challenges in India, but also more broadly contribute to health and development solutions around the world.