Anxious Europeans, fearful that they are falling behind the U.S. and China in the race to deploy disruptive new technologies, have a new buzzword: DARPA.
Germany, France, Britain, Italy and the European Union itself have all toyed with or actually created organizations claiming to mimic the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the near-legendary innovation machine credited with helping to invent everything from the internet to self-driving cars.
Now, with some of these organizations actually up and running, the question remains: Can Europe truly create its own DARPA from scratch?
One of the most prominent attempts is the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI), whose first project -- screening more than 50 billion molecules to find one that could inhibit coronavirus -- started in March this year.
Unless Europeans are at the forefront of technological innovation, “other people or other political systems will impose their values on us,” argued André Loesekrug-Pietri, former special adviser to the French defense minister and one of the founders of JEDI. “And this is a very, very strong motivation for what we do.”
But replicating an organization with a 63-year history, created by a U.S. shocked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, is no simple task.
“You have to set up an institution that has a large budget and has independence,” explained Alex Waibel, a computer science professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, who has analyzed whether Europe can clone DARPA.
The agency has maintained its independence by being part of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is “sacrosanct” and free from “partisan bickering,” he said.
When politicians have too much control over such agencies, they can direct research to boost incumbent industries -- backing incremental improvements in car manufacturing, for example -- rather than doing something truly disruptive, like replacing cars altogether, he said.
“Often in Europe we fight the battles of today,” said Loesekrug-Pietri -- such as working out how to build better lithium-ion batteries -- rather than coming up with the “next big thing.” This might include building a battery without using rare earth metals, he suggested, or one with double the current energy density.
To achieve this freedom, JEDI has been deliberately set up outside the auspices of public administrative bodies such as the E.U.
Instead, it was created by a group of European corporate chiefs, research leaders and technology start-up bosses, and is initially being funded by private research foundations. Regardless of Brexit, British-based scientists are also on board.
Unlike other DARPA aspirants, such as France’s Defense Innovation Agency, set up in 2018, or Germany’s Cybersecurity Innovation Agency, established this year, JEDI’s focus is more civilian: the environment, energy, health care, space and the digital augmentation of humans are priorities.
As in DARPA, program managers are at the core of JEDI. These are outstanding and often charismatic scientists and technologists who are given the power to define challenges, assemble a research team and write checks almost at will to fund interesting ideas.
“The way DARPA works, and we do exactly the same -- and this is quasi-impossible in an administrative structure -- is we hire the program managers, and then [ask them]: What do you think are the exciting problems you want to solve?” said Loesekrug-Pietri.
This is hard to create within the E.U. or other state-like bodies because of rules around financial accountability and the geographic redistribution of funds, he said.
The plan is to create a “super-agile” organization, but then perhaps in the medium term merge it into the E.U. to give it financial firepower in the order of hundreds of millions of euros -- on condition that its culture remains intact.
But, for now, JEDI has just one project ongoing. Five to 10 more are planned for next year, and it has already approved 10 program managers. “We are definitely hiring,” said Loesekrug-Pietri, a Franco-German national with a background in venture capital.
In contrast, DARPA currently has nearly 100 program managers overseeing about 250 projects, enjoying a 2020 budget of $3.6 billion.
The agency reportedly pays its program managers far less than their market rate, but its reputation still makes it a magnet.
JEDI does not yet have this “myth” to turn to its advantage, Loesekrug-Pietri acknowledged. For this reason, its first announced program manager, Thomas Hermans, has continued his job as a chemistry professor at the University of Strasbourg. “If you want the best of the best, you cannot ask them to immediately quit everything they have,” Loesekrug-Pietri said.
Another challenge for Europeans will be actually rolling out any new technologies that emerge from an organization such as JEDI, said William Bonvillian, an expert on the DARPA model based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Having a scale-up system is absolutely key to a DARPA-like agency,” he said.
When DARPA creates a promising prototype of a new technology, it has the U.S. military as a fabulously wealthy client to step in and place an order, he explained; stealth aircraft and military drones have both taken this development path.
“Just having a stand-alone agency with a bunch of genius program managers won’t do it,” he said.