Abstractly ARPA model’s design has the explicit intention that technologies get out of the lab and into the real world. Clearly DARPA has successfully transitioned paradigm-changing technology to the government, large companies, and startups, so the model’s design isn’t worthless. However, many DARPA technologies still fall into the The (idea) valley of death and even successful transitions often are not smooth.
DARPA’s history pockmarked with stories that go “and then at the end of the program, the military or industry said ‘that’s cool, but we like the way we do it now.’” Or perhaps worse, they say ‘that looks great’ but completely stop working on scaling up the technology after taking ownership. In some of these cases the outside organizations come around: DARPA funded the development of UAVs in the 80’s, the Navy took on and then killed the program, DARPA continued development until the military paradigm shifted in the 90’s. The story is similar for optoelectronics. While counterfactuals are hard, these common ‘near death’ stories suggest that there are many programs that vaporized on impact with existing paradigms.
ARPA-E and DARPA - Applying the DARPA Model to Energy Innovation cites some of theDARPA commercialization failures:
- High definition display program
- Thinking Machine - Connection machine parallel processing computer
- Gallium Arsenide computer chips
Each transition failure, like unhappy families, happens is unique. Some of the failure modes do rhyme:
Many of these failure modes illustrate the tension between ‘building something people want’ and ‘building something capable of shifting paradigms.’
Transitions are an area where an organization riffing on DARPA may be able to make big improvements on the original. It is important to first acknowledge that DARPA doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The mechanisms at its disposal are subject to the constraints of the world around it. In the 1970’s that meant large corporations like Xerox, defense contractors, or government labs. The constraints on those organizations have shifted, and VC-backed startups have become an important mechanism as well. DARPA has worked to adjust to this new environment - going so far as to create a commercialization team in 2017, but from person experience the adjustment has been clunky. I don’t have a great answer yet, but it’s important to ask “what would an organization built from the ground up with transitions into today (or tomorrow’s) environment in mind look like?”
DARPA has a 5-10 percent program success rate - so programs that transition are outliers in and of themselves.