Can Europe build its own Darpa?

Fearful of lagging behind the US and China, the continent now has multiple Darpa-like agencies. But they face challenges securing political independence, funding, and turning prototypes into reality

December 14, 2020
New force the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (Jedi) launched in March
Source: Getty
New force the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (Jedi) launched in March

Anxious Europeans, fearful that they are falling behind the US and China in the race to deploy disruptive new technologies, have a new buzzword: Darpa.

Germany, France, the UK, Italy and the European Union itself have all toyed with or actually created organisations claiming to mimic the US’ 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 organisations 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 defence minister and one of the founders of Jedi. “And this is a very, very strong motivation for what we do.”

But replicating an organisation with a 63-year history, created by a US 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 analysed whether Europe can clone Darpa.

The agency has maintained its independence by being part of the US 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 Mr 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 EU.

Instead, it was created by a group of European corporate chiefs, research leaders and technology start-up bosses, and is being initially funded by private research foundations. Regardless of Brexit, UK-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, healthcare, space and the digital augmentation of humans are priorities.

As in Darpa, programme 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 cheques 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 programme managers, and then [ask them]: what do you think are the exciting problems you want to solve?” said Mr Loesekrug-Pietri.

This is hard to create within the EU 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” organisation, but then perhaps in the medium term merge it into the EU 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 programme managers. “We are definitely hiring,” said Mr Loesekrug-Pietri, a Franco-German national with a background in venture capital.

In contrast, Darpa currently has nearly 100 programme managers overseeing about 250 projects, enjoying a 2020 budget of $3.6 billion (£2.7 billion).

The agency reportedly pays its programme 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, Mr Loesekrug-Pietri acknowledged. For this reason, its first announced programme 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,” Mr Loesekrug-Pietri said.

Another challenge for Europeans will be actually rolling out any new technologies that emerge from an organisation 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 US 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 programme managers won’t do it,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

"High risk - high payoff" has been the suggested terminology, they like to forget the "possibly high loss" bit. A tradition of British government is not to set up anything with political independence - it requires "trust" - a word the last few decades (particularly the last decade) of government can't bear. What if someone the government of the day doesn't like gets in control - even if they can do a good job they won't be allowed.
Can you imagine politicians giving up control of spending? Or the treasury not requiring 'due diligence' on every penny? Or say 'here's few billion quid, do something interesting with it' but not demand oversight and justification as they believe all the world except them will fiddle the books? Not that 250 quid a day expense allowance without receipt isn't fiddled right and left, when the rest of us are required to account for anything more than 50p! I'd like to see it but I am as likely to see the flight of pigs currently stacked over Watford being given landing instructions to Heathrow...