Attention science fiction fans, mad scientists, and high-tech companies with radical, life-changing ideas: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to hire you.
Every year DARPA sponsors numerous projects aimed at dramatically advancing the capabilities of the U.S. military. But what makes DARPA stand out from other government agencies seeking the same is simply the “crazy” factor. DARPA doesn’t want to hear your ideas for a remote-controlled helicopter; that’s so 20 years ago. DARPA wants to know if you can create remote-controlled cyborg insects that can fly reconnaissance missions, or produce a submersible aircraft that can maneuver under water. Or how about a shape-shifting robot that can slide under doors? All of these are real DARPA projects. If you have an idea that pushes the “crazy” envelope and can bring the future to the present-day military, DARPA has a job for you.
Just like every government agency, it can be confusing to know where to start. If you think you have what it takes to win a contract with DARPA, here are some basic first steps to get your foot in the door.
Submitting Your Idea
One of the great things about DARPA is that no idea is too outlandish for it to consider. In fact, DARPA wants to take on the projects that private companies would reject for being “impossible” to achieve.
One of the best times to pitch your idea is when DARPA program managers start a new project. But don’t hold back just because you think your idea doesn’t fit into a current venture; DARPA doesn’t push individual contracts but rather collections of projects that work together to achieve a radical solution. You never know when your idea might fit into the larger picture and lead to new areas of research.
There are several ways to submit an idea to DARPA:
- Solicited proposals: When DARPA begins a new project, the agency will advertise the business opportunity by posting a solicitation requesting unique and innovative ideas on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site and Department of Defense SBIR/STTR Solicitations site. Information on DARPA solicitations can also be found on the DARPA Web site.
- Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer programs: DARPA encourages small businesses with strong research and development capabilities in science or engineering to submit SBIR/STTR proposals related to DARPA topics. To find out if you qualify for the SBIR/STTR programs and to see a list of solicitations, visit the U.S. Small Business Administration Web site.
- Unsolicited proposals: It’s the policy of the U.S. government and DARPA to encourage the submission of new and innovative ideas. If you have an idea for research that doesn’t fall under currently publicized solicitations, you can submit it as an unsolicited proposal. In order to save yourself time and effort, make preliminary contact with DARPA to see if it is interested. If the idea is relevant, you will be encouraged to submit a short white paper for review.
How to Make Your First Contact
DARPA receives hundreds of proposals a year, and each program manager is required to read through white papers and abstracts. If you want your idea to be considered, it’s imperative that your key technical ideas are highlighted within the first three pages. Here are some other helpful tips for approaching a DARPA contract and program manager:
- Read the solicitation carefully, and then read it again: Make sure you fully understand what the program manager is looking for before you submit a proposal. If you fail to answer all the questions or provide information that doesn’t directly relate to the topic, your proposal will be denied.
- Be specific: DARPA wants results, not a bridge to nowhere. How will your proposed work lead to something concrete? What difference will it make in improving the lives of our men and women in uniform? Provide specific answers to the questions in a succinct matter. Most of the DARPA offices provide tips on how to respond to a solicitation with exactly what it’s looking for.
- Be a squeaky wheel: If you have an idea that doesn’t fit a current solicitation, don’t just send in a blind proposal. Make early contact with the appropriate program manager and follow up on a regular basis when necessary. A specific program manager can be found in the DAARPA Directory.