Research News

‘Game-changing’ ideas get funding, DARPA official tells UB audience


Published April 13, 2017

headshot of Stefanie Tompkins.

Stefanie Tompkins

“We’re looking for an opportunity to change the world with technology,” Stefanie Tompkins, PhD, acting deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), told more than 75 UB faculty and research staff at a recent meeting on the North Campus.

Tompkins’ visit on April 5 was the latest in a series of presentations and meetings by representatives from federal agencies designed to acquaint faculty and research staff with grant opportunities and the administrators running those programs.

The visits are hosted by UB’s Office of Research Advancement (ORA).

Since 1958, DARPA has pursued high-risk, high-payoff research initiatives that create “game-changing technologies for U.S. national security,” which is broadly defined to extend beyond military applications. Tompkins said that while many credit DARPA and the ARPANET with being the original internet, the agency considers its role more as providing conceptual thinking and the ecosystem, which the National Science Foundation and national policymakers expanded to become the internet.

Tompkins said DARPA is predatory, ready to “swoop in” on disruptive technology that is “bubbling up on the frontiers” of research and that the agency is looking for “trajectory change.” Current programs encompass disciplines as diverse as applied mathematics, materials science, machine learning and biological technologies. She said some researchers might not see the connection between fundamental research and national security, but the agency’s program directors are able “to pull those threads.”

DARPA’s approximately 100 program managers — those who make the decisions to fund research — also are different from those at other federal agencies, according to Tompkins. “They want to save the world,” she said, noting they are university professors, industry researchers and non-profit executives who serve on temporary assignment, typically from three to five years. They and the agency are tolerant of risk and understand that failure is a potential outcome, she added

Tompkins told her UB audience that obtaining funding from DARPA is an “exhilarating, exhausting experience” because the program managers are very involved in the funded research projects and the proposal timelines are brief.

She explained there are two kinds of funding through DARPA: seedlings and programs. Tompkins said there generally are about 400 funded seedling projects at any time — with funding ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 and timelines from three to nine months — so this type of funding is a “good way to try out a new idea.”

Funded programs are multidisciplinary and multi-institutional, frequently involving collaboration between industry and academia, and funding can range from $10 million to $400 million. She said teaming is necessary for these program grants, which aim to answer major social issue questions.

Tompkins noted there are six focus areas and offices: biological technologies, defense services, information innovation, microsystems technology, strategic technology and tactical technology. She suggested faculty members review DARPA’s website, sign up for emails and become familiar with the program managers and their funded projects so they can pitch program managers relevant ideas.

She also reminded faculty they need to be clear and concise in their pitches, starting with a two-page executive summary that answers the following questions: What are you trying to do? How is it done currently? What’s new with your approach and why would it be successful? Who cares about it? If successful, what’s the difference? What are the risks, payoffs, time and costs?

Tompkins has served in various leadership roles at DARPA, most recently as director of the Defense Sciences Office. Prior to DARPA, she served as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. During her career, she also has made several technical contributions to the fields of imaging spectroscopy, geology, navigation and optical element manufacturing.

The ORA supports UB’s research and scholarly community in the pursuit of major research funding and works closely with investigators of large, multidisciplinary projects to coordinate proposals and ensure compliance with sponsor requirements.