DARPA’s Approach to InnovationPDE staff were on hand today for the Woodrow Wilson Center and MIT’s Innovation Policy Discussion Group meeting. Our report of the event—DARPA’s Approach to Innovation—follows:
Today, the Deputy Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Kaigham (Ken) J. Gabriel, offered insights into how his agency approaches innovation challenges.
Describing DARPA as “DoD’s innovation engine,” Gabriel emphasized the advantage of having DoD as the first customer or early adopter of technologies emerging out of DARPA. This helps, he explained, even in moving the technology to the private sector.
Perhaps reflecting his background as an entrepreneur (Gabriel founded Akustica, a semiconductor company), Gabriel talked about the importance of having the willingness to fail and to take risks. Part of DARPA’s work is to recognize failures and “kill” projects that are not producing results.
Of course, DARPA is also about opportunity recognition. “Good ideas are fleeting,” he said, “and we must grab them, fund them in time, or they will disappear.”
Another important element of DARPA’s approach to innovation involves improving manufacturing. According to Gabriel, the U.S. cannot afford not to be manufacturing because it is part of innovation. “To innovate we must make. To protect we must produce,” said Gabriel. Accelerated manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, for example, has reduced the time for new vaccine development from 4-6 months to 1 month. Recognizing that this step is only part of the innovation and commercialization process, Gabriel cited efforts to accelerate FDA approval through new technology.
When asked for his advice for other federal innovation agencies (ARPA-E, etc.), Ken Gabriel offered two:
1. The contracting side has to be as creative as the technical side.
2. They need to have a customer who is going to be a first adopter and will help transition new technologies.