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The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (the Institute) was asked to perform a six-month study of technology transition at the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), Transitioning DARPA Technology. In this project, the Institute developed and documented an understanding of how well DARPA has transitioned these products into military systems over the past forty years. The report also addresses how that mission has been affected by the nature of the Agency and its output, and by the environment in which it operates.

The study had four goals:

  • to examine DARPA's history of transition to its military customer
  • to empirically identify transition paths and strategies employed by DARPA
  • to identify factors that affect DARPA's transition rates and to cite recent changes in those factors
  • to suggest how DARPA might improve transition

In order to accomplish the four study goals, Dr. James Richardson, Diane Larriva, and Stephanie Tennyson drew from the wisdom of past studies but also collected additional data, and developed a nomenclature for understanding and assessing DARPA's transition record. They compiled a list of 124 transitioned DARPA programs, but concentrated on two subsets of this program population. The first set, programs transitioned during the last decade (1990s), was chosen because it was deemed to be easier to obtain information on these programs rather than on earlier decades. The second program population, a subset of the last decade, is the New Starts (or initiatives) begun during Fiscal Year (FY) 1991. For this subset, the research team tracked eighteen new starts, objectively selected with no bias toward either success or failure, until they transitioned products, failed and were abandoned, or continued development with a Service lab.

Assessing transition performance for a research and development (R&D) organization, particularly one with DARPA's mission and operational strategies, is an inexact and argumentative undertaking—not given to a “single number” answer. After much thought, data collection, and analysis, the researchers came to believe that DARPA's transition record should be viewed from many perspectives and that the best way to judge its accomplishments is through a composite of these views. Four perspectives were chosen that together describe DARPA's transition performance and affect the standards of success under which it should be judged. The four were: (1) total number of products transitions to the military services by DARPA; (2) rate of transition, in terms of transitions per number of program initiated; (3) quality of products; and (4) other factors that affect transition. However, for the most part, that judgment remains somewhat subjective, principally because of the difficulties in arriving at an objective standard for success. Analysis of DARPA's record from the four perspectives led the researchers to the conclusion that the Agency's transition performance has been impressive. Moreover, there is ample evidence of many uncounted successful transitions, particularly during DARPA's early history.

To define frequently used transition paths, the team investigated the three canonical transition paths: (1) DARPA-to-Service Acquisition (DSA), (2) DARPA-to-Industry-to Service acquisition (DIS), and (3) DARPA-to-Service Science and Technology (DS&T). The main factor in determining these paths was the financial support of the product once it left DARPA. The report offers examples of products that have transitioned by each path. The report further shows how the paths examined for the 1990s Decade products had some unique features.

The team analyzed the factors that either impede or improve transition potential at DARPA. Some of these factors stem from DARPA's mission or organizational characteristics and policies. Others are part of the environment under which the Agency must transition its products. They also looked at changes in these factors that have occurred as the result of new trends in our world during the past ten years—changes in political, military, business, and R&D environments that have, or should have, affected transition. Some of the main organizational characteristics of DARPA's mission elements were the pursuit of radical innovation with high risk/high pay-off programs and seeking solutions to national level problems. Other factors include high program manager turnover, neglect to credit sponsorship, consortia, and flexible contracting procedures. The report also documents the impact of the environment in which DARPA must operate on transition. Such factors include timing, regulations, customer, and budgetary considerations.

The principal finding of the study is that DARPA's transition performance has been excellent over the past forty years, inserting over 120 products or technologies into fielded systems (about 3 per year). During the past decade, the Agency's record has been even better, about 5 per year. Finally, where data was available, we calculated transition rates and found them to be at a level exceptionally high according to industry's standards. Considering DARPA's other missions and its responsibility to foster high-risk/high-payoff ideas, the Institute's team considers these statistics quite impressive.

Overall, transition at DARPA is an opportunistic pursuit, greatly enhanced by skilled and dedicated DARPA and industry program manager and Service agent teams. It is likely that any structure or procedure that limits the program manager's sense of responsibility or options to transition his or her products will negatively affect the Agency's rate of transition.

Finally, the report offers some suggestions on implementing changes to DARPA's transition strategies and policies. Each recommendation is discusses in light of the team's findings and analyses, as well as other studies. Recommendations include maximizing the effectiveness of the DARPA and industry program manager and Service agent team, and exploiting recent avenues of transition initiated by OSD and the Military Services. Furthermore, the report also recommends developing a better system of tracking and recording transitions and lessons learned, and integrating the results, as well as ensuring sufficient technological maturity of products.

Executive Summary: PDF 1.86MB/19 pgs

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The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies is an independent, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit public policy research institute. The Institute identifies and aggressively shepherds discussion on key science and technology issues facing our society. From these discussions and forums, we develop meaningful science and technology policy options and ensure their implementation at the intersection of business and government.


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