DARPA is more ideas limited than money limited

From What makes DARPA tick:
“I never really felt constrained by money,” (former DARPA director) Tether says. “I was more constrained by ideas.” In fact, aerospace engineer Verne (Larry) Lynn, DARPA’s director from 1995 to 1998, says he successfully lobbied Congress to shrink his budget after the Clinton administration had boosted it to “dangerous levels” to finance a short-lived technology reinvestment program. “When an organization becomes bigger, it becomes more bureaucratic,” Lynn told an interviewer in 2006.
Let’s also just take a moment to stand in awe of this 😮

Both the explicit desire to avoid bureaucracy and the low marginal benefit of money and people is another reason why DARPA is relatively tiny and flat is important.

Why is this?

  • At any time there are only so many things in the Adjacent Possible that fall into the sweet spot of just hitting an inflection point on a Technological S curves.
  • Almost by definition, the more of a Big H hard problem it is Big H hard problems are those that need a discovery to solve the less throwing money at it will help.
  • DARPA is not in the business of dispersion. When you have something that scales, by definition more money = more results.
  • The impact of innovations follow a power law distribution so if you limit yourself to only working on things with a certain level of impact, and are not in the business of scaling those things, more money will not have more impact.
  • Something about the idea marketplace for ideas - once people realize that something is a good idea, darpa money is less useful.

VC firms experience a similar effect - they tend to have lower percent returns as funds get bigger even though they are in the business of scaling things.

Presumably DARPA also has a lower bound on effective funding. What might that be?

Do programs that fall out of scope for present institutions have a large threshold cost? If so what is it?

This situation is related to the question. It suggests that if the answer is ‘yes’ that threshold is not enormous. might be “no, you just haven’t digested the problem well enough.”


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