Created after the Soviets took a shocking early space race lead with the launch of Sputnik, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was intended to light a fire under U.S. innovation. Decades later, with its framework for incubating transformative technologies credited with catalyzing world-changing inventions like GPS, mRNA vaccines, electronic voice assistants like Siri and Alexa, and the Internet, DARPA is generally considered a resounding success.
Nearly 50 years after it first opened its doors, DARPA was held up as the model for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a new entity reporting directly to the Secretary of Energy that would set its sights on the biggest challenges related to reducing emissions, improving efficiency, and sustainably powering an increasingly energy-hungry nation. For those responsible for standing up this new organization, the central challenge was to take DARPA’s essential building blocks and adapt them for an entirely different sector with its own set of challenges, norms, processes, and existing infrastructure. As the founding leaders of a new agency shouldering great expectations, they also faced pressure to hit the ground running and build credibility with some quick wins.
With our decades of success supporting strategy and operations at DARPA and our deep expertise in the energy research space, Booz Allen was a natural choice to provide systems engineering and technical assistance (SETA) support services for ARPA-E programs. As ARPA-E’s primary technical and operations contractor from day one, we supported the agency in the set-up and establishment of the operational frameworks, processes, and IT systems necessary for an energy-focused organization that, in the words of its first director Dr. Arun Majumdar, was tasked with identifying, shepherding, and accelerating “…the stuff that sounds crazy until it changes the world.”
“These are breakthrough ideas, but their big impact may be 10 or 20 years away,” Dr. Majumdar says. “It’s hard for the private sector to invest in promising technologies that that are so far from producing revenue, but ARPA-E can.”