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I'm a PC...and I Fund Crazy Ideas that Might Save Millions of Lives

Now there's a line that would fit nicely in Microsoft's unusually moving new ad campaign. This week the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it had spent $10 million on 104 global-health research projects considered too risky for traditional funding. It hopes that placing relatively smaller bets will lead to a major medical innovation.

When Bill Gates started a global-health foundation in 1994, he was deeply troubled by an obvious math problem: the diseases that killed the most people received the least funding for research. It wasn't even close. About 10 percent of the money went to preventing the diseases responsible for 90 percent of disease-related deaths. Why? Economics and geography. Malaria is a threat for as much as one-third of the planet's population — more than 2 billion people - but they live in the Third World. For drug companies, there's more money in Viagra and Lipitor.

When I wrote about the Gates Foundation a while back, I came away with a much greater appreciation for the challenge of using Gates' fortune to solve global problems. Having the world's richest endowment, more than $35 billion, isn't enough. The foundation has to give grants wisely, accelerating the ideas that will have the biggest impact.

Its Grand Challenges Explorations project sought out the most promising but risky research from around the world. More than 4,000 proposals arrived over the Internet, and all identifying information was removed, to give each applicant an equal shot.

The grant recipients are trying all sorts of approaches. Confusing mosquitos with light waves. Creating a protein to attack HIV-infected cells. Even using mosquitoes to deliver malaria vaccines. "We now have a year to try to show that this crazy idea just might work," one microbiologist tells The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

This latest round of funding shows what's needed for true breakthroughs — scientific as well as financial creativity.