Gates Foundation’s Pipeline is Flush with Grants for New Toilets

It’s fitting that Bill Gates would have an interest in finding a better approach to sanitation. In the early days of his native Seattle, residents lucky enough to have indoor plumbing were forced to deal with geyser-like overflows whenever a rising tide met the drainpipe that channeled the city’s sewage into the Puget Sound.

A little creative sewer engineering allowed Seattle to overcome these problems and become a thriving city. Now Gates is betting that the same can be done for the 2.6 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to a safe toilet.

Residents of most highly developed countries these days are used to flushing toilets that connect to a sewer system. With the touch of a button or the pull of a lever, your problem is whisked away to a distant location where someone else will make sure it doesn’t end up in the water supply.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach is built around the idea that this sewer-system-based technology is just too expensive to be practical in the developing world. They’re looking for chemists, engineers, and other creative minds who are will to re-imagine sanitation from scratch — and all for less than 5 cents per person.

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Health

The most high-profile grants have been awarded through the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. As it turns out, media organizations can’t resist the combination of bathroom humor and a compelling humanitarian issue. The winner in 2012, a team from the California Institute of Technology, attracted a large amount of attention for their solar-powered toilet.

But your project need not include the actual commode to attract support from the Gates Foundation. They are interested in any new technology that might help make sanitation safer and cheaper in the developing world. For example, a team from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands was granted nearly $2.9 million in November 2012 to work on a procedure that converts human waste into fuel.

If organic chemistry isn’t your thing, there are other problems you could tackle. Once these new toilets and human waste conversion processes are mastered, someone will need to create a business model and a logistical plan to distribute them.

And the effort won’t succeed without buy-in from the people who will benefit most, so the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also seeking partners who can create educational campaigns to spread the word about the importance of sanitation and good hygiene. That’s why they’ve recruited partners like the Sesame Workshop to promote these concepts in developing nations like India and Bangladesh.

Related: Brian Arbogast

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows no signs of giving up on its push for better sanitation. If you have the expertise, they have no shortage of resources to help make it happen.