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:
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.)