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Thinking allowed - inside the UK's newest R&D agency

6 min read

With a mission to ‘change what’s possible’, the enquiring minds at the UK’s newest R&D agency have a remit to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects. Andrew Brightwell reports

In their search for world-changing breakthroughs, programme directors at the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency  (Aria) are discussing huge-if-successful solutions to problems you have probably never heard about.

Did you know, for example, that global efforts to remove sulphur from shipping fuel are improving health but are likely to hasten global warming? Have you thought about the slow-down in the two-year doubling of micro-processor power? And what about the need to improve robot bodies? As programme director Jenny Reed puts it: “For our children, the concern is not so much that robots will take their jobs, but that robots won’t have developed enough to fill the gap.”

If these discussions seem a quantum leap from the here-and-now concerns of the usual Whitehall policy screed, that’s the point.

Ilan Gur, Aria’s founding chief executive, says: “I don’t want [the programme directors] to be afraid that one of their programmes is going to fail to meet their objectives. I do want them to be afraid that they miss the chance to shape a programme ambitiously enough where, if it succeeds, it really makes a transformative difference.”

And so, Aria, set up in January 2023, has spent its first year setting out ‘opportunity spaces’ for its initial seven programmes. Written by newly appointed programme directors, these discussions are published on Aria’s website for everyone to read. They hint at Aria’s genesis as perhaps the world’s first government agency dreamed up in a blog post.

Before Vote Leave and a spell at Downing Street, Dominic Cummings argued that the United Kingdom needed its own version of the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The Virginia-based agency played a pivotal role in the development of the internet, personal computing and mRNA vaccines, among many inventions. Then, as the prime minister’s chief adviser, Cummings persuaded his boss, Boris Johnson, to run with the idea and an Act of Parliament followed in 2022.

But Gur, a former programme director at Darpa’s cousin Arpa-E, who left California with his family to take up his role, is keen to distinguish Aria from its US blueprint, founded in 1958. “Yeah, there’s some great learnings. But the world has changed a lot. And the UK is a different place. And frankly, when people want Aria to aspire to something like Darpa, it’s not Darpa they want to aspire to, it’s the myths of Darpa,” he says.

Gur wants Aria to make its own myths, but that might seem tricky in a country that, in 2024, appears to lead the world only in feeling gloomy about itself. But he points out that the UK is one the few places in the world with “the depth and breadth of scientific and technical talent, and institutional capacity to actually change how the world works”.

Wow, if this is on the right course, it really changes the course of history

And led by Gur – founder of Activate, a US-based non-profit built to support scientists to bring their research to market – Aria appears to have made distinctly different choices to Darpa.

For these choices, Gur credits the freedoms Aria was granted by Parliament. They include the ability to direct funding as it sees fit – both in the UK and beyond – and, as its framework agreement notes, “total autonomy over research and project choice; its procedures; and its institutional culture”.

This has allowed Aria to take elements of the Darpa model and adapt them as it sees fit. An illustration is the search for the programme directors who, over the course of a fixed three to five-year tenure, will define an opportunity space, develop and launch a multi-year programme, and can direct seed funding into ambitious research projects within their opportunity space.

Gur says they were keen to move “beyond some historical artefact”. To that end, a colleague interviewed around 60[MW1]  “modern innovation leaders” to build an informed picture of what they would need from the Aria programme directors. Gur reels off qualities including creativity, conviction-based leadership – “bringing people along on a journey” – and what he calls “vision to action” as all essential to differing degrees.

“The first question for our programme director recruitment was: ‘if you could direct £50m to a research programme to change the future of the UK, what would you do?’” Gur says. This would help to select for “the type of person who would apply to say: ‘I’ll step away from whatever great career path I’ve been on for three to five years to do this.’”

One example is Reed, an expert in vision neuroscience, who is exploring how robot bodies could be improved by borrowing from the animal world. This ability to step into an adjacent field demonstrates another of Gur’s list of qualities: adaptability. “This gives her an ability to go and look at things in a different way,” Gur says.ARIA

The House is, of course, talking to Gur just a year into a decades-long search, which might not be the time to ask if Britain’s first high-risk, high-reward innovation agency is working. But with £800m over five years from government, and with each programme director commanding in the region of £50m to advance their vision, showing progress is nonetheless important.

Gur expects there will be evidence of “capital pools and investment” in the 10-year timeframe that is set out by Parliament. He says: “I think everyone will be able to look at Aria [then] and say: ‘wow, we’re on to something and this is a bet that is going to pay off.’”

To realise this, Aria has an expressly international outlook. This global mindset, he says, is necessary because the biggest risk is that “we end up with a big win that just doesn’t do the job [and] isn’t big enough”.

But does that mean any return on investment could escape these shores? Aside from the need for good contract language, it will depend, Gur says, on the decisions made for individual programmes ­­– finding the best ways to secure long-term rewards for the UK.

And on how Aria can work with entrepreneurs who intend to fundamentally disrupt a market, Gur says: “If they’re building [their business] in the UK that’s meaningful in terms of it staying in the UK, so that feels like an important mode for us.”

Gur points out that while they have been granted enormous freedom, “a big part of that was they left a lot open in terms of how this takes shape”. As well as building the agency, much of the first year has focused on governance. More attention will now turn to ensuring Aria is open and transparent in what it does. Exempt from freedom of information legislation, before Gur’s arrival there was considerable worry that the agency could choose to work outside public glare.

“I think, more and more, we’re going to be trying to just communicate and engage really openly, which will be valuable,” he says.

So, does Gur have a favourite programme? Like a good parent, he declines the opportunity to single one out. “There are reasons to be sceptical, but there are also reasons [with all of them] where you close your eyes and say: ‘wow, if this is on the right course, it really changes the course of history.’”

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