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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Key military research event set for Greensboro on Sept. 19

DARPA, the military research agency behind more than six decades of technological breakthroughs, is holding an all-day regional event in Greensboro in two weeks. It is a big opportunity for companies and academic researchers in our state’s defense innovation community who need funding help.

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it oversees some 250 research and development programs  It has been around since 1958, created after the Soviets launched Sputnik. The narrative was that we were losing the space race, and our military was falling behind our chief adversary. Today, our chief adversary is China, and the narrative, again, is that we are in a technology race that will determine the balance of geopolitical power.

For 65 years, DARPA has been identifying and funding breakthrough innovations with military applications, and the research has transformed our economy. You are reading this online because DARPA led the work that created what became the Internet. With around 220 employees and a $4+ billion annual budget, DARPA is looking for revolutionary – not evolutionary – technology to get from labs to the warfighters.

That is not easy. There are a lot of folks working on cutting-edge research in industry and academia. Sometimes they are working on very outside-the-box stuff that can change everything, but they can’t get funded. Fifty years ago it was semiconductor research that would lead to GPS technology and precision bombs. In the ‘80s, it was drone research. DARPA has to  let researchers know what it is interested in.

That is why around 15 high-ranking DARPA officials, program officers and other specialists are coming to Greensboro Sept. 19.

The DARPAConnect event costs $45 in person and is free online. It will be held at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a partnership between North Carolina A&T and UNC Greensboro. JSNN is located on the South Campus of the Gateway Research Park, on the east side of town. That is also where the advanced manufacturing company, Core Technology Molding Corp. is located. I wrote about Geoff Foster’s company last year.

NC A&T graduates more Black engineers – graduates like Foster – than any other university in the country.  In fact, historically black colleges and universities train 30% of Black engineers and scientists in the U.S. but receive only .05% of the Defense Department’s research, development, test and evaluation budget, which is now around $145 billion a year.

DARPA created the DARPAConnect program last year to focus on reaching more small businesses and educational institutions “new to the national security space.” On its web site, DARPA says: “With a focus on underrepresented, diverse, and nontraditional performers, DARPAConnect aims to break down barriers of entry to find the next groundbreaking solutions.”

Earlier this year, it contracted with ARI, which started as a regional economic development initiative in Indiana, to help it stage pop-up events in cities around the country. The Greensboro event is the third DARPAConnect pop-up.

Preparing for the event

One of the main reasons North Carolina was chosen for the third event was the work of the state’s Defense Technology Transition Office, DEFTECH, which helps young, innovative companies do business with the military, including DARPA. DEFTECH has been talking with DARPA to get an event here.

DEFTECH, which is part of the North Carolina Military Business Center, sits in the middle of the state’s growing defense innovation ecosystem.  One of the recurring challenges is helping defense-focused entrepreneurs and academics navigate a complex military funding and acquisition process.

The DARPAConnect event is a case in point. It doesn’t do much good to bring the agency’s folks down here if our companies don’t know, in advance, what DARPA is looking for and if they don’t understand its unique culture. Or if they don’t speak DARPA.

In a sense, DEFTECH has been working on this since it was established seven years ago, particularly with its weekly calls that are seminars on how to do business with the military, what kinds of programs and needs there are, and how to apply and prepare pitches.

It is likely that many of the folks on DEFTECH’s call Friday had never heard of the Heilmeier Catechism, but you wouldn’t want to go to a DARPA event without knowing it, and the call spent a fair amount of time on it. George H. Heilmeier was DARPA director in the mid-1970s. Recognizing that big technological breakthroughs required that DARPA take some big risks in funding ideas, he came up with a standard list of questions that the agency should ask innovators to help determine which big risks were worth taking. These questions included:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?

These are good questions to be prepared to answer no matter what funding agency or group of investors you’re talking to, but particularly DARPA program managers.

Keith Wheeler, who was on the call Friday, is a retired Navy captain who is executive director of ECU’s Office of National Security and Industry Initiatives. Wheeler, while in the Navy, spent three years at DARPA, including a stint as chief of staff.

He said the Heilmeier Catechism “is not just a motto to them. They are using it when they are crunching on a new program to invest, I don’t know, $15-$20 million.”

DARPA, he said, “is unlike any military organization I was ever a part of.” At its core are around 100 program managers. What they want to know, particularly, is why a particular innovation is superior to what’s already been developed and may be on the market.

Who will be there

To get a sense of what the Greensboro event will be like, DEFTECH did a recent podcast with Jennifer Thabet, director of DARPA’s small business programs office, who will be one of the speakers Sept. 19. This Friday, Sept. 8, DARPA officials will be on the DEFTECH weekly call to talk in more detail about their funding programs and interest areas.

At this point, the Sept. 19 event in Greensboro will have representatives from DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, Defense Sciences Office, Microsystems Technology Office, and Information Innovation Office.  These offices are significant to look at online before the event to get a good idea of what they’re working on and funding.

On the DEFTECH call last Friday, Bob Burton, the senior manager, and Denny Lewis, the director, briefed participants on the opportunities.

“You have a technology, you fit in the DARPA sphere. You just may not know it,” said Burton, a retired Special Forces command sergeant major. “There’s work for every single company on this call and in our innovation ecosystem.”

Lewis, a retired Army colonel, also serves as the defense industry point person for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. He and his staff at DEFTECH have functioned as critical liaisons between the myriad of DOD agencies and the defense innovation ecosystem – companies and academics. We have a lot of soldiers and Marines in North Carolina, but not many of the big prime contractors that states like California and Texas have building major weapons platforms.  What we do have is a lot of smaller, growing innovative technology companies that would like to be big, and are trying to get more defense research and procurement contracts. And we have universities with world-class science,medical and engineering programs and research capabilities. DARPA has funded research at UNC Chapel Hill , Duke, and N.C. State.

One reason DARPA is visiting here in two weeks, said Lewis, is because it hasn’t gotten as much response from the region to its program announcements as from other parts of the country. “So there is a lot of interest right now in the Southeast region,” he said. The next DARPAConnnect event after Greensboro, for example, is in November at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Denny Lewis

“You don’t know what you don’t know unless you show up,” Lewis said, “and you hear what they want and how to do business with them. You may be surprised, and you may have an elevated moment where all at once you realize, ‘Heck, I could do that. I didn’t know they were looking for that, and I didn’t realize that the process for beginning to work with these folks had changed, and it’s a little bit easier now than it was perhaps five years ago.’”

ETI event

Also happening in the defense innovation ecosystem is the Defense Manufacturing Summit & Exhibition Thursday at the Emerging Technology Institute in rural Red Springs, in Robeson County.  I wrote about ETI last year.  More than six years ago, James Freeman, who was then at UNC Pembroke, took an empty textile mill on around 55 acres and turned it into a military and tech innovation hub.  One of the partners in the event is N.C. State’s Industry Expansion Solutions, the university’s industrial extension program for nearly 70 years.  In 2021, IES got a $5 million Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program grant to help textile manufacturers, particularly advanced materials and wearables, which are of interest to the military. The Red Springs site is a research and test site for the grant. One focus of Thursday’s event is textile manufacturing opportunities.

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