What is the best job in the world for an innovator?

Arguably, head of DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, headed for the past several years by a man named Tony Tether, whom few have heard of. Tether says that DARPA has triggered about a third of all developments in information technology and about 75-90 per cent of microelectronics developments began at DARPA. For instance, the Internet was born as a DARPA project. DARPA has a $3 b. annual budget. Tether has run the agency since 2001. DARPA is a branch of the Department of Defense, but it purposely headquarters in Arlington, VA, several miles from the Pentagon.

DARPA will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. It will celebrate its contributions, including the GPS (global positioning system) and integrated circuit manufacturing.

Tether is innovative about innovation. For example: He funded a major competition for university students, to design a driverless robotic vehicle capable of piloting itself around a series of complex courses. This is known as a Grand Challenge. The prizes, $2m, $1m and $500k, respectively, were won by Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Virginia Tech Universities. Tether says DARPA invested $20 m. in organizing these competitions, and got some $100-$200 m. worth of development work from the participants!

The key to DARPA creativity is rotation. “Program managers are not at DARPA for a career”, Tether says, “so they are willing to pursue high-risk technical ideas even if there is a reasonable risk that the idea will fail.” 

Half of DARPA’s work is open and non-secret. Most of this is done by universities. The secret stuff is done by industrial contractors. DARPA has a liberal patent policy. “The company or university doing DARPA research owns the patent,” he explains. “We demand a fully-paid-up license to the patent, but the commercial rights are totally owned by the developer”. 

Tether, despite his success, is a Republican appointee and will likely be replaced by the Democratic President. “I used to say no one has been at DARPA long enough to screw it up,” he laughs. “Now I have people saying, Tony, you’re getting there!”
Source: Financial Times, Monday Oct. 20, 2008, p. 14, “Business Life”.