CHARLOTTE – Last week, I was at an event in Greensboro held by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This is the agency that helped give birth to the Internet, and GPS and stealth technology. Its mission, in the aftermath of the Sputnik surprise 66 years ago next week, has been to help revolutionary technology become reality and ensure our military stays ahead of our adversaries.
A DARPA program manager, Ben Griffin, put it this way: When he briefs military officers about projects, “They immediately look at me and want to know, ‘How does it change the game for my warfighters? How does it make it so that when my warfighter goes on the field, that they’re cheating?’ We don’t go out there to fight fair. We want them to cheat.”
I thought the biggest benefit of the conference was that small businesses and academics heard DARPA managers talk about their work in detail and what they are looking for.
The DARPA program managers come and go every few years, by design. The agency deliberately limits their tenure to three to five years. They have come from universities and research jobs in industry and they are going back. DARPA does this to ensure that there are fresh perspectives at an agency that has to be receptive to very out-there ideas.
Why this matters
From a business perspective, it was important for North Carolina to host this event, called DARPAConnect, at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaboration of N.C. A&T and UNC Greensboro. Around 250 folks attended in person and online.
Our state is trying to help its companies land more military research and development grants and contracts, particularly Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants. We have a lot of DOD personnel at our bases, the fourth-largest concentration of active-duty military in the country. But we are 20th in getting SBIR and STTR funding from the Defense Department. We should be eighth or ninth, based on our population, the size of our economy and how well we do in securing R&D funding from other federal agencies. This has been a key focus of the state’s Military Business Center, Defense Technology Transition Office, Defense Alliance of North Carolina and the Board of Science, Technology & Innovation. They were all in Greensboro.