The DARPA Model of innovation

This is the article summary of an excellent series on HBR. First read this and the highlights follow.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency arguably has the longest-standing track record of radical invention in history. Over the past 50-plus years, DARPA has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs, including the internet, global positioning satellites, stealth technologyMEMS, and carbon composites. The agency’s advances are now used in everything from smartphones to sporting equipment to artificial limbs, and it has played a central role in creating a host of multibillion-dollar industries.

What makes these accomplishments even more impressive is DARPA’s swiftness (its programs last only three to five years) and relatively tiny organization (about 120 permanent staffers) and modest budget (about $3 billion annually for roughly 200 programs). With its unconventional speed, efficiency, and effectiveness, DARPA has created a “special forces” model of innovation.

In this article, two former DARPA leaders who now head an advanced research group at Google decipher the DARPA model and explain how it can be adapted for the private sector. The model has three critical, mutually reinforcing elements: Ambitious goals.

Over the past 50-plus years, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs, including the internet, global positioning satellites, stealth technologymechanical systems, and carbon composite

The highlights follow below:

  • The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency arguably has the longest-standing track record of radical invention in history.
  • DARPA contracts world-class experts from industry and academia to work on projects with relatively short durations.
  • Over the past 50 years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs.
  • The authors have been implementing the agency’s model of innovation in a new organization—the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group at Motorola Mobility, which was acquired by Google in May 2012.
  • The agency’s projects are designed to harness science and engineering advances to solve real-world problems or create new opportunities.
  • One of the most effective ways to attract talented performers from a wide array of disciplines, organizations, and backgrounds—and to keep them intensely focused—is to set a finite term for a project and staff it with people working under contracts that last only as long as the jobs they perform contribute to the overall goal.
  • The DARPA model allows a company to alter its portfolio of projects faster and at a much lower cost than a conventional internal research organization can.
  • If an organization involved in the project isn’t getting results but its work is important to achieving program objectives, its efforts may be redirected and its contract renewed.
  • At DARPA that may entail explaining a project in three minutes to a four-star general who may or may not have a technical background, delivering a technical talk at a research conference, or working out intellectual property concerns with a university.
  • The parent company should establish a multiyear budget with critical mass, ensure that the leaders of the advanced research group have visibility into—and the ability to influence—corporate objectives, and give them the freedom to select projects.
  • Given how new the DARPA model is to industry, it should come as no surprise that at ATAP it has been necessary to challenge existing assumptions about the way things operate.
  • It allows the company to build a foundation of expertise, execute with greater probability of success along a road map, generate opportunities for innovation, motivate employees with career advancement, and develop future leaders.
  • Working with ATAP, Motorola’s legal team created development contracts that ensure access to intellectual property and allow for future negotiations about exclusivity.
  • As a result of adopting the DARPA model, ATAP has been able to launch eight projects, involving more than 120 companies and six universities and expertise from 11 countries, in 14 months.
  • It was accomplished with a staff of fewer than 40, including the project leaders and us.There is a detrimental divide between efforts to advance science and the development of new products and applications.
  • DARPA’s model offers an alternative, and its record of success proves that breakthrough innovations can be produced consistently, in remarkably short time frames, with a small, flexible, and agile organization.

The foregoing write up (and the highlights suggest that it “might” be possible to supplant the funding model. However, as I have alluded several times, it doesn’t translate into superior outcomes. We need to realise that quantifiable outcomes in science are essential to drive forth the science policy.

Can the DARPA model of defence be dedicated to healthcare? Possibly yes, but it is difficult to extrapolate the institutional ethos. Those are driven forth by exceptional individuals and have a lot to do with the shared ethos.

The HBR article is a fascinating read. I recommend the takeaways from there.