The Power of the DARPA Approach

  • Posted on 16 March, 2020

Professor Richard Kitney shares his thoughts on funding models following the budget announcement

In my blog last week, I was talking about the development of vaccines and how the Canadian company Medicago might have an approach that could be useful in the industrial scale production of a vaccine for coronavirus. However, an important point that I made in this context was that the company had been supported in developing a manufacturing facility in North Carolina by partnering with DARPA. So, what is DARPA and why is it important in the context of developing new areas of technology?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in 1958 under an instruction by the then President of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower. Eisenhower had formally been the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. He was, no doubt, very aware of the importance of the continuous development of advanced technology. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union at that time showed that there was a great need for an Agency to develop advanced, high risk technology. The key point being that the Private Sector is largely risk averse, when it comes to new technology – preferring, instead, to build and sell proven technology. The kind of terms that were used to describe the type of technology that ARPA was interested in developing were “high risk” and “high gain”.

It was probably fortuitous that the transistor had been invented by Schottky and Co -10 years earlier in 1948. Hence, by 1958 there were the beginnings of what we would now describe as the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Revolution. This resulted in the creation of the Information-processing Techniques Office within ARPA and the development of ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet. The combination of fundamental developments in ICT funded, largely, but not entirely, by public money was critical. The exception, but these were different times, were Private Sector research labs like Xerox PARC, where fundamental developments in ICT were undertaken. Xerox PARC in Palo Alto was, amongst other things responsible for the development of the computer mouse, the first PC, graphical user interfaces and many other standard features of computers today. The important point is that these developments were “high risk”, “high gain” so the provision of long-term funding was essential.

There are strong parallels between the development of the ICT industries and synthetic biology/engineering biology. In fact, the field is sometimes referred to as “digital biology”. In terms of ICT, the 1960s and 1970s were highly productive. Much of the funding for the developments came from ARPA, which, in 1972, changed its name to DARPA (adding the word Defense to its title).

In terms of synthetic biology, DARPA remains critical to the development of the field. This is clearly recognised in a current call entitled “Rapid, flexible manufacturing of DNA molecules for synthetic biology and therapeutic applications”. The point about the DARPA approach is that significant sums of money are invested at each stage of the development of a project -there is careful monitoring and often the project is terminated if suitable results have not been obtained. But, from the start there is a firm steer towards a commercialisation strategy. What underlies this whole approach is the concept of “longtail funding” where public sector finance supports the development of an industrial field (in this case engineering biology/synthetic policy), supported by some Private Sector funding. As the field develops and becomes “de-risked” the amount of Public Sector funding decreases - with a concomitant increase in Private Sector funding.

In the UK, the government is committed to growing the BioEconomy from £220 billion to £440 billion by 2030, not to mention its commitment to the development of a zero-carbon economy. If this is to happen, then a key driver will be the development of a new industry based on synthetic biology/engineering biology. This will, without question, require the type “high risk”, “high gain” research and development to which the DARPA approach is ideally suited. Current funding models in the UK are not compatible with this approach. At best, there is a requirement for matched funding from the start-ups and SMEs in order to take advantage of the public funding. The problem is that the majority of the start-ups and SMEs that might apply have balance sheets that are not compatible with the requirements of the funding schemes.

So, what is needed is a new, radical approach to growing the new industry based on the DARPA model. The question is can we break away from the traditional funding models in the UK?

The issue of public versus private funding will be a main topic for discussion at SynbiTECH 2020,