Arati Prabhakar: Driving Defense Technology

The IEEE Fellow is head of DARPA

7 January 2013

profile Photo: DARPA

In graduate school, Arati Prabhakar couldn’t wait to break out of the research lab and take a leading role in developing new technology from start to finish. And she has indeed followed this passion. After earning a Ph.D. in applied physics from Caltech in 1984, she spent the next 20 years managing technology programs and helping start technology businesses in the public and private sectors.

Last year, she was named director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. government agency responsible for developing technologies for the military. Prabhakar, an IEEE Fellow, is responsible for managing DARPA’s US $2.8 billion annual budget and its six offices, which invest in advanced technologies and military systems, largely through contracts with the technical community.

It isn’t her first experience with DARPA. From 1986 to 1993, she was a project manager for the agency, in charge of research in semiconductor manufacturing technology, including advanced lithography.

So, how does it feel to be back?

“Fantastic,” she told The Institute. “I was gone for 19 years, and even though the agency has changed dramatically in terms of its programs, it still feels like home.”

The world certainly looks different now than it did when Prabhakar first joined DARPA. Then, the United States was dealing with the Cold War and its aftermath. Now, it’s faced with a “post-9/11 world and, with it, a far more complex national security environment,” she says.

One significant change Prabhakar has noticed is that the United States no longer has the dominant position across technology sectors—important technologies are now globally available. They include robotics, network communications, software development, and also relatively new areas like nanotechnology, bioengineering, and big data analytics, which involves processing data sets so large and complex that they extend beyond the reach of many of today’s database management tools.

 “In many cases, we are leveraging, in really creative ways, what is already out there commercially, and adding some unique ‘secret sauce’ that really gives us an edge,” Prabhakar says.

“But something that has not changed at DARPA is our core mission,” she adds. “It’s still all about creating innovative technology and preventing technological surprises. For us to do that, the agency has to have a strong culture of reaching very far—and often taking big risks—to make the kind of impact we need.”

With new ideas and ambitious projects comes the ever-present possibility of failure. But Prabhakar says it is no black mark on anyone’s career if a project fails. “It’s actually a bad thing at DARPA if you’re too timid to try something new,” she says. “We recognize that failure is part and parcel of what we do.”

After her initial seven-year run with DARPA, followed by four years as director of the U.S. National Institute of Standards Technology, she left Washington in 1997 for Silicon Valley. She joined Raychem (now TE Connectivity) in Menlo Park, Calif., as chief technology officer. A year later, she left Raychem to work at Interval Research Corp., a software company in nearby Palo Alto, where she served first as vice president, then president. In 2001, she began working for U.S. Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in IT, green technology, and health care start-ups. There, she focused on growing companies instead of managing technology programs, but she says the two roles share common elements.

“In venture capital and at DARPA there’s a great deal of freedom in the sense that we’re working beyond our four walls, reaching out to a lot of people outside our organization, and tapping into a massive technical community,” she says. “But in these risk-taking enterprises, when you start a new project, the only thing you really know is that it’s probably going to play out in a different way than you imagine.”

How does an agency like DARPA figure out which ideas have the most potential? “It all starts with the project managers,” she explains. “They have to listen and gather information, identify the problems keeping people up at night, find out what’s brewing in their technical area, run with a certain idea, and then rally the technical community around a common goal. Even if a project fails, the researchers involved in those efforts are free to take what they’ve learned and apply it to the next big thing.”

Win or lose, it all comes down to the people, she says: “We have an agency filled with people who are passionate and driven—who are going to the office every morning because they know the work they do is going to change the world. That culture is exactly what I left behind when I left DARPA, and now that I’m back, it’s really gratifying to see that it still exists.”

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