University-Industry Partnerships in the Age of ARPA
Nov. 28, 2023—Beginning with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) founding in 1958, the United States has had great success with the ARPA model. These agencies are known for their high-risk, high-reward approach, bringing some of the most significant technological advancements of the last century, including the precursor to the internet (ARPANET), GPS, and even self-driving vehicles.
Alongside DARPA, the United States now boasts a host of ARPAs, including IARPA, ARPA-E, ARPA-I, and ARPA-H, agencies focused on innovation in intelligence, energy, infrastructure, and health, respectively. Other countries have also adopted this approach to innovation, such as Germany’s Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (SPRIN-D) and the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA).
What does the proliferation of these types of agencies mean for U-I partnerships, and how can organizations leverage ARPAs and similar programs to drive more innovation?
Originally created in response to the launch of Sputnik, DARPA was envisioned as an initiator of technological advancements. Follow-on ARPAs also focus on specific research areas; these agencies are built to take on challenges too risky for other research models. Most ARPAs publish solicitations for proposals on a particular issue and then fund promising approaches. The UK’s ARIA backs its program directors, who have bold, focused visions, freeing them to build out programs using their ideas and expertise. Germany’s SPRIN-D works similarly, inviting innovators with transformative ideas to submit project proposals that SPRIN-D can support through financing, business services, team building, network expansion, and more.
For some, the key to ARPA and similar models’ success with risky projects is still a mystery. Adam Russell, former acting deputy director of ARPA-H, recently published an article pointing to some possible factors. The challenge lies in maintaining the agility to adapt to the rapid pace of research and innovation while also fostering continuity and commitment to nurture progress over time. Russell also highlights “intelligible failure,” the ability to learn from mistakes and use failure to find a path forward, as an element that “makes an ARPA.” According to Russell, an ARPA’s success depends on a culture that prioritizes intelligible failure—one that builds failure into its model to bring projects to success.
Role of partnerships
There are myriad opportunities to engage with ARPAs and similar models, both for individuals and organizations. ARPA agencies welcome collaborations with industry, universities, small businesses, other government agencies, and nonprofits. Often, ARPAs release solicitations for proposals outlining specific problems they aim to solve, and strategically comprised teams from academia, industry, and other research performers can submit proposals for projects that align with this challenge. ARPAs then fund the team, which is crucial for supporting high-risk research that may not be eligible for conventional funding. Individuals can get involved with ARPAs by becoming program managers and helping to steer the projects driving innovation.
Why it matters
With increasing global focus on grand challenges like climate change and health, there is heightened interest in models dedicated to funding transformative, out-of-the-box research projects. ARPAs and similar agencies have carved out a distinct space—high-risk, high-reward research—and are building teams and programs to address big problems. Universities and companies can leverage ARPAs’ risk-taking initiative and available funding to do research that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
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