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New approaches to cutting the number of deaths during childbirth in developing countries will be targeted by a US$50 million fund launched last week (9 March).

Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development was announced in Washington DC, United States, by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank.

They hope to encourage people from the developing world who "know their challenges" to come forward with unconventional ideas, and will provide grants of up to US$250,000 to bring these ideas to the proof of concept stage or of up to US$2 million for scaling up promising innovations.

Speakers at the launch gave existing examples of the sorts of innovations they are looking to fund: vouchers that offset mothers' healthcare bills in Kenya and Uganda, which are sent by text message; a system in Rwanda where patients approve payments to their doctors according to performance; and a cheap resuscitation device that can be used with minimal training to reduce breathing problems at birth, which account for more than a quarter of newborn deaths.

"It's particularly the innovators in low- and middle-income countries who know their challenges who are best situated to solve them," said Peter Singer, chief executive of Grand Challenges Canada, a health agency that works in the developing world.

There are already many 'stagnant technologies' in places like Africa — great ideas that are stuck as they lack the mentorship and capital to roll them out, he said. But there are also success stories, such as A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania, which is Africa's biggest manufacturer of long-lasting insecticide treated bednets. The company now employs 6,000 people.

"Just imagine a world where we help develop these technologies and there are a hundred companies like A to Z, each employing thousands of people and achieving important health and social gains — that's the very core of what this fantastic partnership is all about," he added.

The group hopes that many of the projects it will fund will be the fruit of a combination of science and community wisdom. Innovations should not just be a technological 'fix', they said, but a more holistic approach that looks at the overall scientific, social and business aspects of rolling out innovations.

What is needed to save newborns is "integrated innovation", Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said. "It's innovation ... but it's also new ways of talking with and working with the communities so that they reap the full benefits of the technology."

Rajiv Shah, USAID's administrator, said there was a need to move away from the Western model of treating people in hospitals, to solutions tailored to remote, hard-to-reach corners of the developing world where there are no doctors and no hospitals.

The initiative is looking for proposals in three areas: developing new technologies; creating more reliable and efficient ways to deliver health services; and engaging communities in novel ways and furthering understanding of the benefits to both mother and child when they receive healthcare at the time of birth.

Applications are being accepted until 29 April 2011.

For a video of the initiative's launch and panel discussions see below:

Watch live streaming video from usaidlive at livestream.com
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