RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
DARPA Biotech Office Recruiting Startups, Innovators
The Pentagon's technology arm is prepared to invest up to $700,000 in a promising idea in the field of biological sciences and technology. The goal is to turn theoretical concepts into actual products, such as better sensors for prosthetic limbs and techniques to cope with infectious disease outbreaks.
Under a new initiative by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, inventors will be able to send in proposals without having to trudge through miles of red tape as they would have to in traditional government contracts.
DARPA typically solicits industry ideas through "broad area announcements," or BAAs. For this particular project, the agency is taking a different approach with an "EZ BAA" that is written in layman's terms, said Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA's biological technologies office.
"This is a mechanism for anyone who wants to throw in an interesting idea to come in at any time," she said Nov. 6 during a conference call. Under the terms of the BAA, proposals will be accepted until Nov. 6, 2015.
Jackson insisted that DARPA is not trying to replicate what other federal agencies already are doing in biological and medical research, but instead wants to help push the technology from labs into the marketplace.
"Many agencies focus on basic research," she said. DARPA is looking to combine biotech with engineering and information sciences. "We are the only office focused on biological technology."
Officials are hoping to hear from many startups and medical scientists who might be working on possibly ground-breaking projects but are not aware that DARPA could be a source of seed funding, said Jackson. "People don't associate DARPA with biology ... Or don't know about DARPA."
It is likely that many of the innovators DARPA is seeking have never worked with the federal government before, she said. Small startups are not equipped to do traditional federal contracting or apply for a conventional BAA. The EZ BAA should make it more attractive for them, said Jackson.
Once ideas are vetted, standout proposals might become candidates for additional funding under a more conventional DARPA contract.
"EZ BAA is meant to be a gateway to follow-on funding through traditional mechanisms," said Jackson. Her office estimated that $700,000 would be enough money to put together a meaningful "proof of concept" of a technical idea. "All our proposals are held to clear milestones," she said. "We don't just throw money over the fence and hope a good idea comes to fruition."
The biological technologies office accounts for about 10 percent of DARPA's $3 billion annual budget. Jackson said the field is growing rapidly. "There are so many places to invest. We want to understand what key investments to make that are really going to move the needle."
One area of interest is neurotechnology. DARPA has already scored key breakthroughs toward building more advanced prosthetics for military amputees, such as prosthetic limbs controlled by brain interfaces. The agency wants to push the "man-machine symbiosis," said Jackson.
DARPA also is keen on advancing medical technologies that could help thwart outbreaks of infectious diseases. The Ebola crisis has spurred worries that the United States has been reactive, and there could be ways to better prepare for future biothreats, Jackson said. "We are trying to rethink that paradigm. We're not just interested in solving the Ebola crisis. We want to be prepared for the next thing. We're looking for a way to completely transform the way we're attacking these problems, either with a vaccine or therapeutics or diagnostics."
Responses to the BAA should be short, no longer than two pages, Jackson said. DARPA program managers will sort through the abstracts and identify those they believe hold the most promise, even those that seem too far reaching. "We don't use outside experts to do reviews," said Jackson. "A lot of ideas are unconventional and buck the party line."