Applying the DARPA Concepts to Energy Innovation: The Emerging ARPA-E Model

February 3, 2012

Driving growth through innovation isn’t just about boosting science funding and hoping for the best. Institutions – and their management models – matter. In the past, public agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) helped develop and spur economy-changing innovations, most notably the Internet. It's high-risk/high-reward bets created new industries and yielded massive economy-wide returns on initial investment – some of the best “bang for the buck” imaginable. Because of such successes, many have advocated for implementing the “DARPA model” at other public R&D institutions.

One such case is the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy’s (DOE) breakthrough clean technology R&D program. It’s a fresh and nimble organization that operates at the intersection of fundamental and applied clean energy research aimed at solving key clean technology challenges. And there has been vigorous discussion on many well-known features ARPA-E borrowed from the DARPA model, namely its high-risk investments, its unique recruitment and temporary program management structure, and its collaboration with academia and industry.

But there are a number of significant features of DARPA not widely discussed in the policy sphere that could be important to ARPA-E moving forward. In addition, ARPA-E has adopted new features independent of the DARPA model, given the unique demands of the clean energy technologies and of the established energy sector. Understanding features of both agencies is vital for ensuring that ARPA-E continues to spur breakthrough energy innovations in the future.