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Posted at 02:08 PM ET, 02/14/2012

Technology experts talk ideas and innovations

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: There are people in the federal government looking into an alternative to Velcro. They’re also looking into how to get a glider to reach Mach 20 (fast enough to carry an object from New York to California in 11 minutes) while still under full control of a remote pilot. Oh, and did you know they’re looking into using tobacco leaves — a plant all but abandoned by health experts the world over for its starring role in cigarettes — to create more effective, and fast-to-produce vaccines?


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking a way to use tobacco leaves in vaccines. (Linda Davidson - THE WASHINGTON POST)

If you did know, you probably work for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- or you were listening to DARPA’s director, Regina Dugan Tuesday morning at Washington Post Live’s “Ideas and Innovation” panel of GE’s “American Competitiveness:What Works” conference in Washington, D.C. And these are just the projects she’s authorized to talk about.

DARPA is the Defense Department’s highly secretive innovation powerhouse, and Regina Dugan is a household name for technology, science, mathematics and engineering aficionados the world over. Dugan joined a panel alongside Google’s Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives Alfred Spector and WeddingWire CEO Timothy Chi to discuss what is, in essence, this blog’s raison d’etre.

“The heart of what we do,” said Dugan, “is that we mash together basic sciences and driving application” with implications for industries and Academic institutions.

“Our solutions really have to work,” said Dugan, referring to the application of DARPA innovations in the most “austere” places, including war zones and other, high-stress life-and-death situations.

“That kind of urgency,” continued Dugan, “inspires greater genius.”

And this means education is critically important. A high-school dropout could cost the nation life-saving innovations. DARPA has a $20 million a year investment in science and math, according to Dugan.


In this undated artist's rendition released by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) showing the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2). (AP - AP)
“It’s critically important to improve the quality of the inspiration of these students,” she continued. DARPA believes that innovation is deeply coupled with the ability to make things - a drive to create that many find attractive, but for which few are qualified. “The people at DARPA,” said Dugan, “they really are an elite few.”

Meanwhile, Google, considered one of the world’s most innovative companies, is undertaking projects of its own, in an effort to traverse the path from idea to innovation.

The search and ad distribution company works a lot with the open source community and universities, according to Spector. In fact, Spector’s team takes on 1,500 interns in an effort to maintain those ties. He also works with the venture capital community.

“We look a lot at understanding language, “ Spector said. That includes looking increasingly towards the semantics of understanding. For an example of this, Spector referred to Google Translate, an effort to make any Web site translatable into any language. Expect voice commands and voice-powered search, said Spector.

“In our world, ideas and innovation stems from human capital,” said Chi, speaking from the perspective of a small business. Businesses, he said, should be sure to put the right procedures and policies in place to make sure that innovation is happening at all levels, including design, process and flow.

“You really need to work on bringing the right people on board,” said Chi.


AeroVironment Inc.'s Nano Air Vehicle (NAV). AeroViroment is developing the Nano Hummingbird under a research contract sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). (Paul Taggart - BLOOMBERG)
And the idea of innovation itself — beyond the people, the inventions and the technology — needs to change, Dugan argued. “We have to break ... a long-standing impression that innovation is this ethereal ... thing.” This theory, said Dugan, was one developed in the 1940s and ‘50s.

This new innovation paradigm, according to Dugan, requires putting together the scientific breakthrough and a driving application in one program.

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By  |  02:08 PM ET, 02/14/2012

Tags:  Washington Post Live, American Competitiveness

 
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