Dear friend of Indiana University:

Nine months ago, Indiana University announced a bold plan to transform the way it conducts large-scale research for the betterment of Indiana and the world beyond our borders. Our five-year, $300 million Grand Challenges program is designed to bring together teams of our very best researchers—and to attract national research leaders to IU—for the purpose of tackling some of the most pressing issues facing our state, nation and world today.

By definition, a grand challenge—such as curing heretofore incurable diseases, addressing climate change and global water shortages or harnessing the power of, and protecting, big data—is one that is too large for any single individual or institution to solve on their own. What is required, however, is for research powerhouses like Indiana University to put a stake in the ground, through a commitment of financial and intellectual resources, to attract other like-minded institutions to come to the table to address such issues.

I am excited to report that the Grand Challenges program reached its first milestone last week with the announcement that the initial research grant has been awarded to a team led by Dr. Anantha Shekhar, IU’s associate vice president for clinical affairs and executive associate dean for research affairs at the IU School of Medicine, that will develop IU’s expertise in individualized precision medicine.

Led by faculty at the IU School of Medicine, IU Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the goal of IU’s Precision Health Initiative is nothing less than to transform health care for the people of Indiana and medical research and education at IU. Precision medicine is aimed at understanding and optimizing the prevention, treatment, progression and health outcomes of human diseases through a more precise understanding of the genetic, developmental, behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to an individual’s health.

Or to plainly state it, as Dr. Shekhar did during our announcement event last week, this visionary initiative is designed to cure currently incurable forms of cancer, provide answers to life-threatening childhood diseases and offer preventative treatment for crippling chronic and neurological diseases. (To learn more about the Precision Health Initiative, I invite you to view this video.)

Such bold goals send a clear signal of IU’s intent to improve the quality of life for the people of Indiana and beyond, and the university has committed the financial resources necessary to get this ambitious effort off the ground. The Precision Health Initiative represents a $120 million investment over the next five years—up to $40 million from the Grand Challenges program and as much as another $80 million from the IU School of Medicine.

This money will be used to fund approximately 40 new faculty positions dedicated to this work, about half of which will be at the IU School of Medicine with the remainder being leading researchers in a number of fields at our Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses.

The program will support the creation of new facilities, centers and user platforms, including new gene editing and sequencing cores at the IU School of Medicine. The program also will include a cross-campus Center for Chemical Biology and Biotherapeutics, a Precision Health Data Commons and a Precision Health Integration and Analytics Platform.

To be clear, this level of funding, while substantial, is not intended to cover the full costs of an endeavor of this scope. Indeed, this proposal—like all those considered for Grand Challenges funding—includes a plan to leverage IU’s initial investment to attract industry, government and university partners.

For example, the Precision Health Initiative team already has plans to work closely with several prominent Indiana business and community partners, including Eli Lilly and Co., Roche Diagnostics, Cook Regentec, Deloitte, Regenstrief Institute and IU Health.

Dr. Shekhar, whose research portfolio already includes the developing of exciting new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and who is considered one of the nation’s leading clinical translation scientists, is an ideal leader for our first Grand Challenges initiative. Indeed, the Precision Health Initiative will put IU’s extensive breadth and leadership of large-scale research, discovery and innovation to work for the people of our state, which is one of the fundamental principles upon which the Grand Challenges program is based.

As excited as I am about the prospects for the Precision Health Initiative, I am similarly enthused about the future of the entire Grand Challenges program.

Last week’s announcement was the first of what we expect will be as many as five Grand Challenges research awards to be given between now and IU’s Bicentennial in 2020. If the response to our initial call for proposals is any indication, the future of IU’s research enterprise is very bright.

The first round of the Grand Challenges attracted 21 preliminary proposals that involved over 400 faculty members from 29 schools at six IU campuses. Each of the preliminary proposals was given a thorough review from committee of leading faculty members from across IU, which recommended projects to a steering committee made up of members of senior leadership. Additionally, faculty members and business leaders from around Indiana were invited to offer input on the initial proposals.

Based on this input, I invited five project teams in January to prepare full proposals, which were presented to the university and public at large in April. To receive full consideration for a Grand Challenges award, proposals needed to address large-scale problems in an interdisciplinary fashion. They also had to provide, first and foremost, a clear vision of the impact their project would have on the lives of Hoosiers.

The results of this process were nothing short of extraordinary. As result of Grand Challenges, our leading researchers are working across campus and disciplinary boundaries, breaking down the types of organizational silos that too often limit an institution’s ability to effectively conduct high-impact, large-scale research.

As we look ahead, I am extremely optimistic about the future of the Grand Challenges program, and its ability to both deliver tangible results for Indiana residents and to elevate IU’s standing as a leading research institution to new heights.

The process that yielded last week’s announcement stands as proof that IU researchers are up to the task of providing a vision for tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. Indeed, I am more confident than ever that IU’s Grand Challenges initiatives will draw strategically on IU’s strengths and resources, and involve partnerships with industry, government and community organizations to create a tangible and lasting positive impact on both the state and the university.

Such an ambitious undertaking would not be possible without the commitment and hard work of many people, and it would be impossible to name all those who have played a role in the program thus far.

Still, special credit and thanks is due to Fred Cate, IU’s vice president for research, who has led the Grand Challenges program with enormous energy and integrity, and to those individuals who participated in the proposal review process as a member of our review committee, steering committee and external advisory board. Of course, programs such as Grand Challenges would not be possible without the continued generosity of our alumni and other friends of the university who share our vision of education and service to Indiana.

Please join me in thanking all those who helped make the launch of our Grand Challenges program a success and in once again congratulating Dr. Anantha Shekhar and his Precision Health Initiative team on their very well deserved award.

With warmest regards,

Michael A. McRobbie
Indiana University