DARPA – A Leader in Technological Innovation
We’re not prone to believe in conspiracy theories, unless they have something to do with the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster or an alien invasion/Nazi incursion at the South Pole. But there is one government program out there that makes us wonder if the X-Files TV program was based on a true story. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, has probably been behind more technological innovations than the top ten tech companies in the world combined.
Heard of something called the Internet? Yeah, that was DARPA way back in the 1960s, despite what former VP Al Gore might claim. Ever use Google Maps? A team at MIT developed the first interactive maps in 1979 with funding from DARPA. Like talking dirty to Siri? Yeah, that was also DARPA, which funded the original research into voice recognition and artificial intelligence that led to the development of Siri. Apple just bought the company that matured the technology. DARPA also had a hand in the development of GPS and even what would become known as the Windows operating system.
DARPA was born out of the Space Race after the then-USSR put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. It was America’s “oh isht” moment, and the government created DARPA “so it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises”. It would seem that they checked that box, though we wonder if DARPA just has a UFO hidden away in some bunker and mines the alien ship for new technologies to release every few years, like in the movie Independence Day. That could explain the development of Unix and parachute pants. OK, maybe only one of those is a DARPA-back technology.
DARPA is Everywhere
While much of the government dollars doled out by the shadowy agency go to research institutes, DARPA often seeds little-known startups or university spin-offs that promise big results. We’ve already featured quite a few of these companies on Nanalyze. For example, OpenBCI, which promises to bring brain-computer interface to the masses, got its start through DARPA. Augmented reality/virtual reality company Kopin received millions of dollars from DARPA to develop wearables for the military. A couple of the NewSpace startups that we recently featured are working on engines for rocket technology with DARPA dollars.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as an AI bot that provides insight into customer relations for call center employees has its origins at DARPA. The agency funneled money into the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT to develop a software platform to help with mental health issues for military personnel. The company now known as Cogito has raised $28 million so far in the burgeoning automated customer relationship management (CRM) space.
By now you probably get the idea. DARPA is investing and contracting in just every type of technology imaginable, from optogenetics and synthetic organisms to AI chips and a more efficient internal combustion engine. This got us to wondering if we should add DARPA as an honorary member to our list of the top VC firms for tech disruption. At the very least, it sent us on a search for more startups where DARPA has had a (gloved) hand.
We briefly mentioned Descartes Labs earlier this year while profiling Orbital Insight, a geospatial big data company that combines AI with cloud computing to provide insights into economics, social issues, and conservation. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup originally applied its machine learning to satellite imagery for agricultural analyses. It has expanded its repertoire to include a function that searches satellite imagery for similar objects. It had taken in $8.28 million at the time of our last story.
Now DARPA has awarded Descartes a grant of $1.5 million to analyze, monitor and forecast wheat crops across the Middle East and Africa, according to an article in Fortune. The idea is that if the bright minds in the government can predict where crop failures may occur, they can pinpoint regions susceptible to famine and unrest. Remember that the Arab Spring of a few years ago was, in part, due to spikes in food prices caused by a drop in global crop supplies. A shadowy government agency investing in a crop report: not sexy. A shadowy government agency investing in a crop report to head off—spur?—a possible coup: James Bond sexy.
Update 10/11/2019: Descartes Labs has raised $20 million in new funding as it gears up for expansion. This brings the company’s total funding to $58.3 million to date.
Ayasdi is a Silicon Valley AI startup that peddles AI, particularly in tackling big data complexity in healthcare and financial services. It has taken in more than $106 million, including a hefty $55 million Series C a couple of years ago. DARPA and the National Science Foundation provided about a decade of research funding before the company was founded in 2008. Investors include names like GE Ventures and Khosla Ventures.
The company’s AI platform includes a half-dozen services, including anti-money laundering (see screenshot above). For example, banking giant HSBC recently tested Ayasdi’s AI technology out for 12 weeks, resulting in a 20 percent reduction in false-positive instances of money laundering, which take many man-hours and money to investigate. In healthcare, Ayasdi offers what it calls a Population Risk Manager that automatically predicts future risk trajectories and drivers of risk from certain populations that might hurt a company’s bottom line. Sounds like a great addition to America’s world-class health system. If you want to dive into the details about this interesting company, we have you covered.
Continuum Analytics is another startup in the business of business intelligence. It has raised $39 million, according to data firm CB Insights, including a $3 million grant from DARPA. The DARPA funding in 2013 was to help the company develop visualization and other interactive tools to play with large, complex data sets. The funding was part of DARPA’s XDATA program to create new computational tools and open-source software for processing and analyzing big data.
Continuum Analytics’ open data science platform is called Anaconda. You’ve heard of citizen scientists? Continuum’s open-source philosophy helps create citizen data scientists, allowing anyone to download the software and start looking for trends and insights into big data. Anaconda is not just for the DIY’er. IBM recently announced it’s integrating Continuum’s platform into its AI system.
LA-based Tribogenics is one of those startups whose origin story begins in academia—UCLA, to be exact—and involved research grants from DARPA that led to a new way of making X-rays. The startup has nabbed $19.7 million in funding since, as well as an undisclosed Series C last year. It has developed a handheld X-ray machine that retails for less than $10,000. The instrument, dubbed Watson (see below), works at a fraction of the cost of current technology by eliminating the need for a high-voltage power supply. Instead, it uses a process similar to static electricity, called the Triboelectric Effect, to generate X-rays.
This isn’t just about imaging Timmy’s broken arm. The handheld analyzer has applications in everything from metal fabrication to QA/QC in the aerospace industry. Nikon became a key investor last year, with the angle of helping commercialize Watson.
Update 02/20/2018 – Appears to have gone bust.
DARPA is betting big on Cambridge-based Gamalon, which has developed a different type of AI-based platform predicated on a theory of probability named after an 18th-century mathematician and theologian. The startup has scored about $12.2 million in funding, which includes $7.7 million in R&D contracts from DARPA.
The Gamalon machine learning platform is called Bayesian Program Synthesis, which the company says can accelerate machine learning by more than 100 times, according to Network World. The basis of the BPS system is that it uses probability statistics to determine potential connections among the data. By doing so, Network World reports, it drastically reduces the amount of data needed to structure unstructured data. Gamalon is not to be confused with gamelan, a type of Indonesian music that, as far as know, has nothing to do with DARPA.
Secret UFO bases aside, DARPA is investing American tax dollars into some of the most cutting-edge tech imaginable. The returns so far—the Internet, GPS, and an ever-crashing easy-to-use computer operating system—have been amazing. It’s probably worth investing your time to see where this shadowy but slick government agency plans to put our money next.
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