A handful of organizations have riffed on the ARPA Model with mixed success

When talking about past riffs on the ARPA model, it’s important to distinguish between organizations that spiritually riff on the ARPA model and structurally riff on it. Spiritual riffs (or just spiritual rhymes) are organizations that have enabled or strived to enable high-risk, possibly paradigm changing, goal-focused research. People often conflate DARPA with great R&D organizations of the past - Bell Labs didn’t have a unique model, Xerox PARC, Lockheed Skunkworks. It doesn’t help that DARPA funded and helped organize research at all of these places. While I am all for being spiritually inspired by DARPA, we’re digging into the hypothesis that DARPA’s structure is worth riffing on, so I’m going to ignore organizations that fall into this category.

To my knowledge, there haven’t been any attempts to structurally riff on DARPA before the latter half of the 00’s. This timing is intriguing in itself, and in pure speculation mode it’s the consequence of the dawning realization that something wasn’t working. IARPA, born in 2007, is the oldest organization riffing on the ARPA model. Evaluating these ARPA rifflings as successes or failures is difficult, given that they are all younger than 13 years old, ARPA style programs usually take five or more years to produce a result (and often much longer to have an impact), and the expected success rate is 5-10 programs out of every 100. I will touch on whether they ‘feel’ success-y, but primarily we should focus on the deviations they have made from the standard ARPA model, whether they make sense in context, and whether we would expect the deltas to lead to more success or failure over time.


Most countries have a military R&D organization (for example Israel’s DDR&D- Directorate of Defense Research & Development or Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA). These organizations do work on advanced military technology but are closer to Lockheed Skunkworks than Publishing feels more like hardware development than software development.


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