New: DARPA Opportunities

You wouldn't just cross the street whenever you feel like it. You wait until you see an opening.

Two ways to get results:

1. Pitch your idea at a random point in time,

or

2. Wait for an opportunity. Then go for it.

Either method works.

But too many people stick with the first method. They don’t stay in close enough sync with the Agency to take advantage of their latest initiatives.

In other words, they walk straight into existing traffic.

So from now on, The Initiative will cover some of the most promising current opportunities to work with the Agency.

Latest DARPA Opportunities

For now, these will be selected. Not exhaustive. If you see value in hearing about DARPA Opportunities without having to dig through complex government websites, let me know and The Initiative might cover these more thoroughly.

These could be new FBO solicitations. Or new program managers who join the Agency and thus need to connect with new people (i.e. you) — so they can establish a network and project portfolio.

Take a look at the opportunities below. Share if someone you know would love to hear about them:

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Bridging the Gap Plus (BGPlus)

Solicitation seeking new approaches to treat spinal cord injury.


Advanced Corrosion Control (Polyplexus)

Project on the Polyplexus platform (which is effectively a DARPA incubator) seeking to improve understanding of fundamental corrosion processes.


Focused Pharma

“Focused Pharma aims to develop new drugs that target specific neurotransmitter receptor signaling modes to deliver near immediate relief that is generalizable across indications and individuals.“

DARPA Program Manager Describes Agency's Approach to Speed and Technical Risk

This is why well-run DARPA programs often deliver within impossible deadlines.

Today, you get a belated Halloween treat.

I asked Mike Fiddy, DARPA Program Manager at the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) about project management, R&D team composition, how the Agency manages such extreme technical risk and more.

All the core aspects of how they manage to deliver on brutal deadlines.

One thing: he explains why measuring speed is not really useful. Too many unknowns.

Sounds counter-intuitive? Read on.

Do you use any effective metrics to measure the speed of progress toward breakthrough tech? Or is measuring speed not particularly valuable?

Mike: I do believe that having deadlines is important and regular interaction with performers is necessary to monitor progress. However, research progress is not predictable since many questions being asked have not been asked before and so, provided progress is being made despite unexpected ups and downs, I personally do not think that measuring speed is particularly useful.

How hard is it to tell which projects harbor the most technical risk down the line? Or do you tend to learn about technical risk only after much work is done?

("Technical risk" here as a measure of how whether the thing can be built in a reasonable timeframe. Commercial-grade fusion power has a lot of technical risk; a new interface for Google Calendar has very little.)

Mike: DARPA is an agency that is project driven. We ask performers in their proposals to estimate risk and how they would mitigate it. We usually structure programs in phases with a base period followed by options. Each phase has goals and milestones and we monitor these to assess progress. Sometimes research reveals important surprises as well as dead ends. The program manager’s task is to be closely involved with all of the performers’ efforts and co-ordinate, redirect or drop as necessary in order to maintain progress towards the overarching program’s goals.

Are project with high technical risk (DARPA-hard or similar) more likely to lead to technology with commercial potential? (Or perhaps less likely, or no clear relation?) E.g. as you increase the technical risk slider, does the commercial potential also increase?

(Of course, many R&D projects are extremely hard but never end up providing value.)

Mike: DARPA tends to fund projects that are high risk and that will have an impact on defense and national security needs. That there are commercial opportunities for the same technology advances is always an advantage but I do not think there is any simple relation between high risk and commercial potential since we are guided by DARPA’s mission. It is always possible that emerging technologies will spin-off from DARPA programs and be picked up for commercial use, possibly in quite different application domains.

Do failed projects with high technical risk tend to create the building blocks for future breakthroughs? If so, does it become hard for teams to keep track of your "IP database" -- i.e. to maintain awareness of which problems have already been solved?

Mike: Since DARPA tends to fund projects that are high risk, the pay-offs can be large but we also expect some failures. This is disappointing but important to know. Failure implies that the research direction/goal did not develop as initially hypothesized which also means that no surprise from our adversaries pursuing similar ideas is likely. Knowing what doesn’t work can be just as important as knowing what does. Also, sometimes “failure” is more to do with technology limitations of the day, which might be solved in the future, in which case the idea might be pursued again.

What are some of the most easily identifiable barriers to speeding up breakthrough-seeking research? E.g. getting access to collaborators, IP restrictions, organizational inertia, sourcing off-the-shelf components to solve acute technical problems, or something else?

Mike: Research into any topic almost always generates more questions and the need for more research. For a focused DARPA project, speeding up potentially breakthrough research might in some cases require pulling the right expertise together in a team or ensuring that the facilities can accommodate the planned effort. Sometimes a long term goal might clearly need a series of smaller programs to be executed first, in order to create the community, expertise and infrastructure anticipated for the more challenging goal.

What’s more important: speed of progress, or efficiency of tasks? i.e., would you rather a) move more slowly but minimize wasted effort, or b) move faster but have some wasted hours that could have been avoided?

Mike: Speed of progress, efficiency of planning tasks and minimizing wasted effort are all important, which is why the role of the program manager, on a day to day basis to monitor the performers and coordinate efforts is so important.

What makes for an effective R&D team composition -- e.g. would you favor generalists or deep knowledge experts? Do you see a need for scientists or engineers to have a multidisciplinary focus?

Examples: an electrical engineer that can do traditional electrical engineering and some programming. Or a physicist who is also an effective software engineer.

Mike: This is a good question but it depends on the research topic. One of DARPA’s objectives is to create new communities with the expertise to address problems that might well span several traditional academic boundaries. There is often a certain amount of time required to do this as ways of thinking about a problem and the technical tools and jargon employed are shared. This might require individuals with very deep but narrowly focused expertise or more of a generalist who can assimilate over a wide range of topics and distill important new insights…..or both! It all depends.

Can you give an example of a specific process you would put in place to diagnose artificial, unnecessary slowness in the development of breakthrough technology?

Mike: The process we have to monitor progress and provide guidance and feedback varies between program managers and programs. Regular conference calls and requests for short but pertinent progress reports or slides helps identify those who are working effectively and those who might be struggling for whatever reason. It is not unusual to have calls with performers every month or so and to meet with them individually or with all of the programs’ performers in order to map overall progress and share results.


Do you have other questions you’d like to ask the Agency? Something you’ve been afraid to ask? Something which thus far has stopped you from engaging with them? Drop me a line and I’ll find you the answers.


DARPA Tip: Always Check for New Program Managers (PMs)


Every so often, The Initiative will give you a DARPA Tip. Short methods showing you how to best build relationships with people in the Agency.

Some are obvious. Some sound strange. All are based on what worked before for other scientists and technologists.

The bottom line: the Agency needs to at least know about every cutting-edge technology or scientific idea out there. The more we can increase the connectedness between it and the chaotic world of breakthrough technology, the higher the chance of building a new technological frontier.

So if the method makes more sense for someone you know, go ahead and forward it to them.


The comings and goings of DARPA — one of its main advantages

One of the ways the Agency resists bureaucracy and fossilization is by having high staff turnover.

Especially staff with high autonomy. Namely, the program managers (PMs).

And new PMs know the clock's ticking. They know they’re not in the Civil Service or tenure-track academia. DARPA program managers know they don't have forever to make the best of the opportunity they seized.

They need to build up a portfolio of DARPA-hard projects very quickly.

Which creates a golden opportunity for you.

If you're keen on working with the Agency, you should periodically check the New Program Managers list.

Keep an eye out for new PMs whose interests match yours.

But don’t ignore those with backgrounds in allied fields. If you aim to get DARPA support on a project that relies on expertise in molecular biology and a new PM joins who's deep in nanotechnology, you should definitely reach out to them. Don't pitch your entire project upfront -- just make the connection to your project clear. Because even if the PM isn't a domain expert, they might introduce you to someone who is.

Bottom line: DARPA PMs are where the action is. And they’re a rotating group of just over 100 people. They aim to cover basically all of cutting edge science and technology. Thus, new PMs are keen to build up their portfolio of breakthrough technology projects.

Go look for PMs who joined recently and reach out if you see relevance. You might hit the jackpot.

The Main Ways to Work With DARPA in 2019

Not an exhaustive list. But you gotta know all these...and choose the right one.

Where do you start?

Without existing relationships, the Agency looks like a monolithic entity.

But it isn’t. More than ever, it actively encourages outsiders to connect.

Primarily in three ways:

1) Specific solicitations.

The Agency periodically puts out specific requests for proposals and information for areas they’re interested in.

These solicitations are program-specific — meaning, they connect to work happening right now in the Agency. (What kind of work? For security reasons, we usually don’t know. Doesn’t matter though — because in any given solicitation, all your competitors have the same restrictions.)

Note: FBO.gov will transition to a new site on Nov 8, 2019. So expect a few administrative hiccups. Meaning: if you’re working on a proposal around that time, make sure you check both sites continually until Uncle Sam has ironed out the kinks.

What to do

Check these FBO and Grants.gov links for DARPA-related solicitations and grants:

FBO (DARPA)

Grants.gov (DARPA) (enter DARPA in the search field)

(Yes, there really should be ONE simple place to sign up for all DARPA-related grants, solicitations or whatever else is out there. Constantly updated, so you don’t have to wade through ancient government websites. If such a thing sounds useful, let me know and The Initiative might make it happen.)

2) "Office-Wide Broad Agency Announcements" (BAA)

Long title. Translation: same as an FBO solicitations. Just less restrictive.

Best choice when your project doesn’t fit an existing solicitation.

And each Office puts out its own BAA. Updated every year.

What to do

i) Go to this site and find the most relevant office for your project.

Building a new implant to fix spinal cord injury? You want the Biological Technologies Office (BTO).

Think you have revolutionary ideas to advance artificial intelligence? You want the Information Innovation Office (I2O)

For more research-based proposals, consider the Defense Sciences Office (DSO). By necessity, they have strong connections to all the other offices.

You get the idea.

ii) Read the FBO solicitation for that office. Follow the submission instructions precisely.

You'll need to request a DARPA BAA Submission account before you submit and handle other crucial details -- so if you have a proposal, you better start this early.

[Alternatively, The Initiative can help you with the entire submission process. We can get the hard and tedious parts done for you. Reach out here.]

iii) Don't waste DARPA's time with incremental ideas.

DARPA explicitly funds only next-generation, transformational technology. Small performance increases in, say, fuel efficiency for a Boeing 747 might interest Boeing and large commercial partners -- but not the Agency.

3) Reach out directly to an individual program manager (PM).

A clear, concise and compelling first message can start a great relationship.

But due to DARPA's extreme prestige, people make self-limiting assumptions about it.

For one: they assume program managers (PMs) and others in the Agency are hard to reach.

Completely false. They actively encourage cold emails. And once you have a basic relationship and a possible good fit for a project, your PM can open doors for you.

What to do

i) Decide which is the most relevant office for your project.

See the list of Offices.

ii) Find the most relevant person based on shared interests.

My suggestion? Go with program managers (PMs) rather than the leadership team, unless you have a good reason not to. The PMs are often especially reachable.

iii) Craft a clear, concise and compelling message.

Check the articulation of your project using the Heilmeier questions. Important to get it right. While it’s highly likely your message will be read, you do have to work to get through the noise and convey information that resonates. Just like with any other email.

These are some of the (mostly) timeless methods of working with DARPA. But by necessity, the Agency looks for new ways to interact all the time. So stay tuned.


(One exciting new way is Polyplexus. And others. More on them soon.)


Start with The Heilmeier Catechism

Ask yourself 8 questions before you do anything with DARPA.

Almost everyone who builds any kind of ambitious technology faces the following problem:

You've spent endless hours building something that lets people do something completely new. Technical capabilities beyond what was possible before. Perhaps a new type of rocket fuel to get to orbit faster. Or a new brain-computer interface method that might one day enable paralyzed people to walk again.

One problem though. You suffer from the curse of knowledge.

You know more about the thing than almost anyone else alive. And deep knowledge has a downside: you don't know what the people you need to talk to don't know. Especially if you've built the thing with a team of people who share the same deep technical background -- because whether you notice it or not, you’ve already evolved a sub-culture and way of communicating which won't be as clear to people on the outside as it is to you.

Worst part: the curse of knowledge will trip you up even more if you deal with federal agencies. Because while many of the people assessing your work will have a technical background -- perhaps even in the same sub-discipline -- they're inundated with technical types pitching them ideas all the time.

So how do you communicate the value of the thing you built to someone who didn't build it?

Enter the Heilmeier Catechism.

Yes -- a curious name. But in the mid-1970s, DARPA director George Heilmeier came up with a way to help people in the Agency select which projects to fund and support.

In their words, it’s a tool to help people decide which risks are worth taking.

To this day, it still forms part of the Agency's philosophy. Meaning: the opportunity bell should be ringing loud and clear in your head right now. Because if this is part of how the Agency operates at a cultural level, you need to know this.

The good news: it’s just a list of 8 simple questions to sharpen your pitch.

Here they are:

  1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.

  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?

  3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?

  4. Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?

  5. What are the risks?

  6. How much will it cost?

  7. How long will it take?

  8. What are the mid-term and final "exams" to check for success?

Let’s focus on just the first question — because everything else flows from it.


George Heilmeier asks you: “What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.”


This is where the curse of knowledge bites you hardest. Jargon is part and parcel of every science.

That's why you need to go against standard scientific practice. Zero jargon. Explain the thing you're building to an intelligent but non-technical person who knows nothing about your subject.

But wait a minute. DARPA program managers and others are usually super-technical people. In fact, you'd do well to actively find the one person in the Agency with the right technical background needed to understand your pitch.

So why the need for zero jargon?

Because simplification both allows wide communication and helps you stand out. A zero-jargon explanation of what you're trying to do always beats a deep technical explanation.

Don't get me wrong: the deep technical details are ultimately what it's about. But not when your primary goal is to first get people interested.

That's why Heilmeier asks you this question first.

Talk about deceptively simple. The Heilmeier Catechism is a timeless tool for conceptual simplification and overcoming the curse of knowledge. Case in point: the first two busy people I told about this went through it straight away, printed it out and put it on their office wall. It's that powerful.

You should do the same. Answer Heilmeier’s 8 questions about your work — before you do anything with the Agency.

Now -- stay tuned for more. There are big things happening in DARPA, other high-impact federal agencies and the wider world of breakthrough technology.

— Harry Red

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