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ARPA-E and DARPA: Applying the DARPA model to energy innovation


ARPA-E offers a new innovation institutional model to meet energy technology challenges. Because it is explicitly based on DARPA, this article reviews the noted DARPA approach in detail. Briefly citing well-known features of DARPA, it explores a number of important features that have not been well discussed in the policy literature on DARPA. These include DARPA’s ability to undertake multigenerational technology thrusts, the synergies it has been able to create through complementary strategic technologies, its ability to build an advocate community, and connections it has built to larger innovation elements downstream from DARPA. It has also taken on incumbent technologies within both DOD and in the private sector, used ties to DOD leadership to press its advances, and supported initial market creation. The article then reviews the new ARPA-E model in detail, commenting first on how ARPA-E has adopted key DARPA approaches. It then discusses new features ARPA-E is adopting, driven by the unique demands of the complex, established energy sector. These include new ways: (1) to sharpen the research visioning, selection and support processes, (2) to build a community of support, important to its political survival, and (3) to implement technologies it supports. In addition, the further DARPA features enumerated above provide potentially useful future guideposts to ARPA-E. The paper closes with a discussion of the difficult technology implementation problems on the “back end” of the innovation system—including demonstrations, test beds, and initial markets. The article posits that both agencies must further address these implementation issues by fostering additional downstream partnerships, including between government and private sector.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Solow (2000), Romer (1990), and Jorgenson (2001).

  2. 2.

    The term was developed by Clayton Christiansen, and reflects Schumpeter’s economic concept of capitalism (Christiansen 1997). See, also, Schumpeter (1942) (concept of “creative destruction” in capitalism in which new technologies and processes create or alter firms and markets).

  3. 3.

    ARPA-E was first proposed in National Academies (2007, 152–157).

  4. 4.

    ARPA-E received $400m in initial funding from the 2009 stimulus legislation (ARRA 2009) for FY’s 2009 and 2010; it did not therefore seek additional funding in FY2010, The Administration’s budget sought $550m for ARPA-E in FY2011; Congress funded it at $180m for FY 2011 (Continuing Resolution FY 2011).

  5. 5.

    Attempts have been made in recent years in the federal government to create DARPA “clones,” particularly HS-ARPA for the Department of Homeland Security, I-ARPA for the intelligence community and BARDA within the Department of Health and Human Services for biothreats and health emergencies. While there are questions whether these attempts successfully emulated DARPA, this paper does not specifically explore these organizations. HS-ARPA was never fully implemented; a number of the reasons, and implications for ARPA-E, are discussed in Bonvillian (2007a).

  6. 6.

    Discussion by Kaigham Gabriel, DARPA Deputy Director, at forum on Leveraging DOD’s Energy Innovation Capacity, at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Washington, DC, May 25, 2011.

  7. 7.

    See, for greater detail on these features, Van Atta (2008) and Bonvillian (2009a).

  8. 8.

    Waldrop (2001) provides detailed illumination of Licklider’s role in fostering the revolution in information technology which has been duly recognized as one of DARPA’s most remarkable and compelling accomplishments. He also describes how Licklider’s IPTO successors sustained it.

  9. 9.

    Licklider’s IPTO Office initiatives in computing gathered momentum when Kennedy and McNamara concluded they had a major “command and control” problem from their experience in the Cuban missile crisis; expanding Licklider’s program was the DARPA response (Waldrop 2001, 200–203).

  10. 10.

    For DEFENDER transition to the Army, see Van Atta et al. (1991b, 1–17, 1–26). Interesting as a contrast, DARPA’s initial assignment for detecting Soviet nuclear tests, the VELA program, remained within DARPA for many years, and the operation of the Large Aperture Seismic Arrays remained under DARPA for decades, as no appropriate agency could be identified to take on the responsibility (Reed et al. 1990, I-13–14).

  11. 11.

    See Van Atta et al. (1991b), Chapter XVII, “VLSI: Enabling Technologies for Advanced Computing,” for discussion of this approach, especially Annex B to this chapter on the SUN Workstation.

  12. 12.

    Communication from Arati Prabhakar, former DARPA PM and Office Director, and later Director of NIST, May 27, 2011.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, Fong (2001) and National Research Council (1999).

  14. 14.

    Interview with Vinod Khosla (Van Atta et al. 1991b, 17-B-11).

  15. 15.

    See Gupta (2000, 1–11) for discussion of the technology innovation orientation of west coast VCs.

  16. 16.

    See discussion of this term in Bonvillian (2009a, 206–210).

  17. 17.

    See discussion of this functionality concept in Weiss and Bonvillian (2009, 185–190).

  18. 18.

    DARPA is working to build a manufacturing technology portfolio; see summary of some of these elements in MIT Washington Office (2010, 4–6.), See, generally, Tassey (2010) and Pisano and Shih (2009).

  19. 19.

    Some observers counter that DARPA’s productivity generally has remained high, despite such concerns. See Fuchs (2011).

  20. 20.

    The following discussion on ARPA-E derives from ongoing discussions since ARPA-E’s initial formation between author Bonvillian and ARPA-E’s director, its deputy director for operations, and one of its program managers; author Van Atta had similar discussions with ARPA-E officials during this period. Both authors had an extended discussion session with four ARPA-E program managers about the ARPA-E model on April 5, 2011, which was particularly helpful in developing this paper. Both authors have long been observers of the ARPA-E formulation process; both testified before the House Science and Technology Committee on the ARPA-E authorizing legislation, HR-364 (2007), Bonvillian (2007b), Van Atta (2007). Author Bonvillian, in addition, wrote about the proposal (Bonvillian 2006) and (together with former DARPA Deputy Director Jane Alexander and former DARPA General Counsel Richard L. Dunn) reviewed ARPA-E concepts for Department of Energy Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Steven Isakowitz and his office, over several weeks in February and March 2009, as the CFO’s office led the DOE effort to form and stand up ARPA-E within DOE.

  21. 21.

    See, H.R. 364 (2007), America COMPETES Act (2007). See, also, America COMPETES Act Reauthorization 2010, Sec. 904, amending section 5012, and House Committee on Science and Technology Hearings on ARPA-E concept (March 9, 2006; April 26, 2006). The conceptual origin for ARPA-E as a DARPA model for energy stems from the National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (National Academies 2007, 152–158). For a discussion of some of the issues under consideration in the initial Congressional design of ARPA-E, see Bonvillian (2007a). For an early description of ARPA-E’s mission and role from its first director, see Majumdar (2009).

  22. 22.

    The six ARPA-E program directions awarded to date listed here can be found at ARPA-E 2010. A further award offering was announced by Secretary Chu on April 20, 2011 for rare earths, biofuels, thermal storage, grid controls, and solar power electronics (Department of Energy 2011b).

  23. 23.

    ARPA-E also has a PM who is deputy director for technology, and several additional teams: an “operations” group supervising its contracting process, including a counsel (who implements ARPA-E’s unique personnel and contracting authority despite the very different procedures of DOE’s management bureaucracy) and deputy director for operations; a commercialization team (discussed below); and a group of fellows (typically outstanding recent university PhDs, who support the PMs, discussed below). But the R&D operating core of ARPA-E is very flat: its director and its group of PMs. Regarding this term, the original enabling statute uses “Project Managers”, see, America COMPETES Act (2007), Sec. (f)(1)); the term “Program Directors” was substituted by America COMPETES Act Reauthorization (2010), Sec. 904(f)(1)(C)(i), which amended ARPA-E’s enabling statute in 2010. ARPA-E Director Majumdar decided to use the term “Program Directors” to emphasize how empowered its portfolio managers are. However, the term Program Managers is used here to parallel the term used in DARPA because the functions are similar and it is a functional title which is widely understood in the technology community.

  24. 24.

    ARPA-E Director Majumdar’s bio available at Majumdar (2011).

  25. 25.

    This approach was used in some specific programs at DARPA. One specific example was the Global Hawk HALE UAV, which had a “firm requirement” of a fly away cost of $10 million per unit. Importantly, while Global Hawk is generally viewed as having had a major impact on US military capabilities, this cost per unit was not met with the initial systems developed under DARPA and subsequently the Air Force has re-designed the Global Hawk to be a much larger and much costlier system (Van Atta et al. 2003b, 45–49). See, also, Porter et al. (2009, Vol. II, 49–50) on Global Hawk cost and schedule difficulties.

  26. 26.

    ARPA-E (2011) PMs’ bios available at: The PM group includes a deputy director for technology.

  27. 27.

    America COMPETES Act (2007), Sec. 5012(f)(2)(A), as amended by American COMPETES Act Reauthorization (2010), Sec. 904(g)(3)(2)(A)(i) (ARPA-E civil service waiver) In contrast, DARPA uses Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) authority to hire PMs promptly (hiring can be completed in a day) from academia or industry, with the employee still paid through his or her former employer at the former salary level.

  28. 28.

    America COMPETES Act (2007), Sec. 5012(f)(1)(C), as amended by American COMPETES Act Reauthorization (2010), Sec. 904(g)(2)(C).

  29. 29.

    For DARPA’s Other Transactions Authority (OTA), see, P.L. 101-189, 10 U.S.C. 2389 (enacted 1989); P.L. 103-160, Sec. 845. For a discussion of DARPA’s OTA authority, see, Kaminski (1996), Dunn (1995, 1996a, b, 2007). The Department of Energy received “Other Transactions Authority” in the Energy Policy Act (2005), Sec. 1007. However, it was only utilized once (GAO 2008) until the advent of ARPA-E, when ARPA-E used it three times in 2009 in making its initial grant awards. See, America COMPETES Act Reauthorization Act (2010), House Comm. Rep. 111-478, of House Committee on Science and Technology, Subtitle B (“To attract non-traditional performers and negotiate intellectual property agreements ARPA-E also uses flexible contracting mechanisms called Technology Investment Agreements authorized for the Department as ‘Other Transactions Authority’ in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”).

  30. 30.

    For analyses of private corporation and DOD defense S&T programs illustrating how successful radical innovation programs are constructed and managed in this manner, see Van Atta et al. (2003a).

  31. 31.

    Secretary Chu also personally selected ARPA-E’s director, a Berkeley colleague and friend, who was his former deputy director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This assured a very close connection between ARPA-E and the top agency leadership, somewhat comparable to such noteworthy technology “bridge” relationships as that between, for example, Radiation Lab founder Alfred Loomis and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Vannevar Bush, President Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II science czar and Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s chief personal aide. See Conant (2002, 178–289) on Loomis and Zachary (1999) on Bush.

  32. 32.

    Secretary Chu, as noted above, has long been an ARPA-E proponent: see Chu (2006).

  33. 33.

    As discussed in Part 2, the frontier was not entirely open; DARPA did take on the IBM mainframe model in supporting disruptive technologies to achieve personalized computing and the internet. But it also took on a set of technologies that were not of primary interest to IBM and in fact were of very low priority to it compared to its mainframe computing.

  34. 34.

    A working ruleset for optimal innovation organization cultures is set forth in, Bennis and Biederman (1997, 196–218). A number of these Bennis/Biederman “rules” are (as of 2011) painted on the walls near the DARPA Director’s office in DARPA’s building in Arlington, VA.

  35. 35.

    This perspective evolved from ARPA-E’s first award offering for $150m, issued on April 27, 2009, which was entirely open-ended, simply seeking innovative new ideas for energy technologies from academic energy researchers and firms. While the small ARPA-E staff—the organization was just being assembled—anticipated that they would receive only some 400 applications (assuming, as one ARPA-E official put it later, “Whoever heard of ARPA-E?”); instead, they received over 3,500 applications. See, Kosinski (2009, 8). Because it faced an overwhelming application volume, this forced ARPA-E to assemble a major review effort relying on scientists throughout DOE to assist (which aided in their subsequent DOE community building effort, discussed below). Because they had far too many quality applications for their limited initial award funding (they only made 37 initial awards), they developed their “white space only” approach described in the text above, which has since become a basic agency policy approach. Realizing that the energy tech sector was eager for a DARPA model in energy, and that there was already a major “tech buzz” around ARPA-E, the agency subsequently limited its award offerings to particular technology sectors, discussed above in the text in this section, to control the number of applications and make the review process manageable. However, to avoid disappointing and frustrating the initial wave of applicants, ARPA-E created its innovative energy technology “summit,” described below. Thus, two of ARPA-E’s more innovative approaches—“white space” and its now annual “summit” were lessons that came out of the near-nightmare of managing its first open-ended initial award process.

  36. 36.

    However, ARPA-E’s enabling statute does require preparation of a technology “Strategic Vision Roadmap”. America COMPETES Act (2007), Sec. 5012(g)(2), as amended by America COMPETES Act Reauthorization (2010), Sec. 904(b)(2).

  37. 37.

    When DARPA was first stood up it had a scientific advisory board and at times some of its Office Directors have empanelled such groups.

  38. 38.

    DARPA over time has attempted to achieve internal support from other defense R&D agencies. See Bonvillian (2009a, 220).

  39. 39.

    America COMPETES Act (2007), Sec. 904(e)(3) authorizes ARPA-E to fund “consortia…, which may include federally-funded research and development centers” (FFRDC’s—including energy laboratories).

  40. 40.

    See programs for ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summits (2010, 2011).

  41. 41.

    See, for example, Hourihan and Stepp (2001) and testimony of DOD Deputy Under Secretary for Facilities and Environment Dorothy Robyn (Robyn 2010).

  42. 42.

    George H. Heilmeier was Director of DARPA from 1975 to 1979. See his “Heilmeier Catechism” of questions about proposed research projects. Heilmeier Catechism (1975). See, generally, Heilmeier (1991).

  43. 43.

    See, for example, Cooper et al. (2002).

  44. 44.

    See, for example, DARPA (2009) (Network Challenge); DARPA (2007) (Urban Challenge).

  45. 45.

    See discussion of this engineering stage at DOD in Alic (2011) and Gholz (2011).

  46. 46.

    The concept of “market launch” is developed in Weiss and Bonvillian (2009, 14, 20, 34).

  47. 47.

    There are very few industry tech developments at a scale comparable to those of major defense systems. One recent one is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger aircraft. Notably, that development has experienced major problems in cost and time to product (it is 3 years late and facing on the order of $12 billion in overruns), some of which can be attributed to problems of transitioning and implementing new technologies. See, Gates (2010). It also appears that Boeing, taking a chapter from the IT sector and its distributed global manufacturing model, hoped to become a global systems integrator to spread and reduce its aircraft development risk, since the capital costs mean each new plane launch is usually a “bet the company” experience. However, complex aero technologies have not yet proven as susceptible as IT to global production distribution. The complexity of managing a global sourcing network for the 787 has been relentlessly problematic.

  48. 48.

    See Knox (1999) for a thorough case analysis of the difficulties in the U.S. Army implementation of tactical UAVs.

  49. 49.

    Vernon Ruttan has raised the concern that with the post-Cold War decline in impetus in defense innovation, the U.S. innovation system may not now be strong enough to launch new breakthrough technologies in either the public or the private sector (Ruttan 2006b).

  50. 50.

    IHS Global Insight (2011) states that in 2010, China accounted for 19.8% of world manufacturing output (in current dollars), a fraction ahead of the United States’ 19.4%; China’s manufacturing sector grew 18% in 2010 and the U.S. at 12%; over 2008–2010 China’s manufacturing sector grew at a pace of 20.2 percent per year, while the United States grew at 1.8 percent and Japan, the third largest, at 4.25 percent. See also, Baily (2011) and Norris (2011).

  51. 51.

    DOD’s Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy is playing a lead role in this area. Dept. of Defense Office of Manufacturing (2011).

  52. 52.

    “DOE has had a significant loan guarantee program since 2005 but did not issue loans until 2009. It has a mandate to ‘facilitate the introduction of new or significantly improved energy technologies with a high probability of commercial success in the marketplace.’ Although the program is aimed at helping move technologies past the initial commercialization barrier, the mandate’s language builds in potential contradictions. It is limited to deployment-ready projects, so it excludes demonstrations, and the ‘high probability of commercial success’ clause, perhaps due to the legacy of failed 1980s synfuels projects, significantly limits the risks that the program can take with innovative technologies.” (Bonvillian 2011b).

  53. 53.

    Comment cited in Hourihan and Stepp (2001, 17). See, also, Marqusee (2011).

  54. 54.

    See program list in Department of Defense (2011b) (SERDP and ESTCP Energy and Water Projects).


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Correspondence to William B. Bonvillian.

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Bonvillian, W.B., Van Atta, R. ARPA-E and DARPA: Applying the DARPA model to energy innovation. J Technol Transf 36, 469 (2011).

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  • ARPA-E
  • Technology transfer
  • Innovation system
  • Energy technology
  • Defense technology
  • Multigenerational technology thrust
  • Complex established legacy sectors (CELS)
  • Testbeds

JEL Classifications

  • O3
  • O32