Summer Students

Faye Williams

“How do we know when we’ve solved a Grand Challenge?” was a question posed to the Grand Challenges Canada team by the CEO, Dr. Peter Singer, during one of our weekly team meetings. The moment when he asked this was a defining moment in my experience with Grand Challenges Canada.

As an international development student, I was drawn to the field because, like many, I saw the need for change. To me, international development is about solving problems and finding sustainable solutions that will improve quality of life. From an industry perspective, that means eventually putting ourselves out of business. If we make a concerted effort towards finding sustainable solutions that have a positive impact, then theoretically we should be working towards our own obsolescence. But like many international development students, there were times when I felt discouraged. I didn’t see the industry working towards its own retirement, and I often wondered whether we were doing more harm than good.

When Dr. Singer prompted the Grand Challenges Canada team to ponder what it would look like when a Grand Challenge had been solved, he might as well have been asking: when can we close a program and move on to address other grand challenges in global health? It was in this moment that I realized that Grand Challenges Canada is moving in the right direction towards the denouement of international development as an industry.

So, how do we know when we’ve solved a Grand Challenge? It’s a hard question to answer. Particularly when dealing with global health. Does solving a Grand Challenge mean discovering a cure for a disease? Does it mean affecting change at a systems-level to ensure the cure is administered to everyone who needs it? Or do we not stop until we conclude that the disease in question is eradicated?

It seems the team at Grand Challenges Canada thinks about this question—how do we know when we’ve solved a Grand Challenge—from the moment they wake up to the moment they leave the MaRS building at the end of the day. While we may not have a conclusive answer yet, there are several mechanisms in place for keeping us on track towards solving the Grand Challenges. Some of these mechanisms include:

  1. Integrated Innovation – all applicants to Grand Challenges Canada programs are asked to describe how their Bold Ideas integrate scientific/technological, social and business innovation. Through this approach, Grand Challenges Canada encourages innovators to think holistically about their proposed projects. This ensures that proven solutions are implemented appropriately in low-resource, culturally-diverse contexts, and that they are combined with the necessary business sense to get them off the ground.
  2. Pathways to Scale – applicants are also encouraged to think beyond the proof-of-concept stage towards possible pathways to scale. A Bold Idea does not lead to Big Impact on its own. Grantees are asked to think about their pathway to scale early so that they can make the necessary adjustments to their project to prepare for public or private implementation or partnerships.
  3. Community of Innovators – At the time of writing, Grand Challenges Canada has approved 407 grants. That’s a robust global community of innovators that Grand Challenges Canada brings together, either physically through community meetings or online through this LinkedIn Group. Nurturing a community of innovators increases the chance of success of our projects through collaboration, knowledge sharing, and partnerships.

There are many ways in which Grand Challenges Canada conceptualizes, and encourages innovators to conceptualize, the final resolution of a Grand Challenge. Although we may not know exactly what it will look like when a Grand Challenge has been solved, I am convinced that we are on the right track.


Faye Williams is the Policy and Strategic Partnerships summer student at Grand Challenges Canada. She is currently pursuing her BSocSc. (Hons.) in International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa. Connect with her on Twitter: @FayeElizabeth_W