Last week, I was at an event in Greensboro held by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This is the agency that helped give birth to the Internet, and GPS and stealth technology. Its mission, in the aftermath of the Sputnik surprise 66 years ago next week, has been to help revolutionary technology become reality and ensure our military stays ahead of our adversaries.
A DARPA program manager, Ben Griffin, put it this way: When he briefs military officers about projects, “They immediately look at me and want to know, ‘How does it change the game for my warfighters? How does it make it so that when my warfighter goes on the field, that they’re cheating?’ We don’t go out there to fight fair. We want them to cheat.”
I thought the biggest benefit of the conference was that small businesses and academics heard DARPA managers talk about their work in detail and what they are looking for.
The DARPA program managers come and go every few years, by design. The agency deliberately limits their tenure to three to five years. They have come from universities and research jobs in industry and they are going back. DARPA does this to ensure that there are fresh perspectives at an agency that has to be receptive to very out-there ideas.
Why this matters
From a business perspective, it was important for North Carolina to host this event, called DARPAConnect, at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaboration of N.C. A&T and UNC Greensboro. Around 250 folks attended in person and online.
Our state is trying to help its companies land more military research and development grants and contracts, particularly Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants. We have a lot of DOD personnel at our bases, the fourth-largest concentration of active-duty military in the country. But we are 20th in getting SBIR and STTR funding from the Defense Department. We should be eighth or ninth, based on our population, the size of our economy and how well we do in securing R&D funding from other federal agencies. This has been a key focus of the state’s Military Business Center, Defense Technology Transition Office, Defense Alliance of North Carolina and the Board of Science, Technology & Innovation. They were all in Greensboro.
One of the keys to moving up is to get more companies and academic researchers to seek military R&D funding. The purpose of DARPAConnect is to demystify the process and get innovators more comfortable with the idea of engaging with the agency.
What is a DARPA project?
DARPA already funds research in North Carolina. In FY ‘22, there were 16 awards totalling nearly $17.8 million. In FY ‘23, there were 11 awards totalling around $11.5 million.
DARPA funds high-risk, high-reward projects. “We are so early on in the research process,” says Mark Jones, a DARPA contract specialist. “We are looking for those revolutionary changes, starting from the basic research up. We understand there is a lot of risk.”
Rohith Chandrasekar, a program manager in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office, says that if DARPA was already researching a topic, “it is highly unlikely that DARPA will have a second program in the same exact technical space. Your best position to be in is that there’s absolutely nothing done in DARPA that aligns with your research, and there just arrived a program manager who has that background. Not having any work at the agency that aligns with your technical background is a great place to be, because then you can convince DARPA that this is an area that we need to be thinking about.”
Griffin, who is a program manager in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, says that if a problem’s solution is generally known and just requires “money and elbow grease,” it’s not a DARPA problem. Typically, what is needed to solve a DARPA problem is a new, untried technical approach.
At the center of DARPA’s funding is a set of questions called the Heilmeier Catechism, named for a 1970s-era director who came up with it as a way for DARPA to evaluate proposals. These are questions like “What are you trying to do?” and “How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice,” and “What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?” and “Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?” These are at the core of what you need to write up in proposals to DARPA, and “these questions are deceptively simple,” said Chandrasekar.
“What you’ll find,” said Griffin, “is the first time you do it, you’re going to do it wrong. And that’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Me, as a program manager, I got to 120 versions one time.”
Griffin walked through what DARPA is looking to see.
“How is it done today? Ideas don’t exist in the ether. You have to ground it in something. How do we do something like this today? What’s the standard approach? You’re taking a new technical approach.”
“I’m a microelectronics person. We recently put out a program called HOTS [High Operational Temperature Sensors]. We said, hey, silicon technologies are the way we create sensors today, but they’re inherently limited in space. Everybody knows we’d like to go to wide-bandgap semiconductors, but there are key limitations that are stopping us from taking it forward. So, H2, what’s stopping us? What are the limitations or what are the key technical challenges?”
The third Heilmeier question, what are you proposing that’s new and why do you think it will work, should be answered, Griffin says, with “something that can lead us to believe you can overcome the limitations of today.”
“Not just a ‘Believe me,’ but some quantitative conjecture, let’s say. That doesn’t mean you have to have experimental results. Those could help. It doesn’t mean you have to have modeling results. Those could help. But a quantitative proof that says, hey, if we combine these elements that’s never been tried before, we might be able to solve the technical challenges.”
He told the attendees not to let the process stop them from engaging with DARPA. “If you’re having problems, you can go to DARPAConnect, get coaching. Just come to the building with your ideas.”
The program managers urged young academics to get involved with the agency’s Young Faculty Award program, which seeks to identify rising stars in junior research positions, focusing on those without prior DARPA funding. By giving them funding, mentoring and DOD contacts early in their careers, it tries to develop the next generation of academic scientists, engineers and mathematicians who will focus on DOD and national security projects. This is also a way to bring more talented researchers into DARPA as program managers.
A dozen North Carolina academics have won YFA awards since 2006, seven of them from N.C. State. Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and UNC Charlotte have also had faculty selected.
Of the roughly $2.2 billion that DARPA obligates annually, around 27-29% goes to small businesses. And around 20-25% of that is awarded through SBIR/STTR grants. What DARPA is good at is getting other DOD agencies to supplement its funds for specific projects. This helps very early-stage companies pivot to growth and commercialization – getting DOD customers, for example. “DARPA is where you start,” said Jennifer Thabet, director of DARPA’s small business programs office. “But we don’t make things. We don’t build things. We don’t buy things. It’s never going to be where you end. So what we really try to do is help set you up for transition success.”
“We like to give you some form of legs that you can walk out of DARPA and continue your research. We are at early-stage at DARPA, and we push our SIBRs early. You may not be ready to talk to an end user, but we try to put you in front of them early, even before you’re ready, so that you can have those conversations, so that an end user says ‘If you would tweak this one piece it would be great and much more integrate-able into our end state or hard product.’”
She used the example of an Illinois early-stage company, Influit Energy. Influit is developing a battery with nanoparticles suspended in electrolyte that can be replenished quickly from a tanker truck. This would allow electric military vehicles to be quickly charged up like they are now refueled, rather than the slower process of lithium-ion recharging.
“Because we took them on the road in front of end users, [Influit] was able to get this $1.8 million award added to by the Air Force and the [Defense Innovation Unit], and a commitment from an office in the Pentagon that helps with testing and evaluation,” says Thabet.
“And that $1.8 million award is now turned into a second Phase II [SBIR grant] and an additional $3.4 million in funding and $2 million in commitments once they reach a certain milestone.” Influit was a 2009 spin-out from Illinois Tech and Argonne National Laboratory.
“When we started working with them,” says Thabet, “they were in a really tiny lab on the south side of Chicago. Because of their work with DARPA, they are in an over 20,000 square foot facility on the south side of Chicago.”