‘A safe place to fail’: ARPA-H chief on building a culture of risk-taking in science

Renee Wegrzyn has been assembling teams her whole career — in academia, industry, and government. Now she’s in charge of a multibillion-dollar operation tasked with spotting talent, incubating breakthroughs, and doing for the life sciences what DARPA did for technology.

Wegrzyn is director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, a newly formed organization tasked with investing in promising ideas across the life sciences. Its mission is not to supplant the National Institutes of Health or compete with venture capitalists, but rather to bankroll potentially transformative projects that might otherwise slip through the cracks of traditional funding.

Wegrzyn was included in the second annual STATUS List, which features leaders in health, medicine, and science. STAT caught up with Wegrzyn to discuss her path to leading ARPA-H, the organization’s mission, and the importance of establishing the right culture on day one.


The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You’re a biologist by training, and your career has taken you through academia, government, and industry. How did all of that prepare you for the job of building this novel organization from the ground up?


What I have realized in each step of my career, I’ve started where I get the chance to build something. My first job out of Ph.D. was actually at NIH. I was a member of a team at NIDDK [the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases], and I was the second employee, helping that P.I. build his lab. Then I went back to school and helped build up a team and move to a new lab. I went to DARPA and launched programs. So doing that in each one of those settings — an academic setting, a government setting, and then most recently at Ginkgo Bioworks, where I really had a chance to help be part of a leadership team and build the part of the organization that responded to the pandemic, bringing that from a couple dozen people to a few hundred people.

I think doing that in each of those settings has really helped set me up for being able to be a leader here. Not only to build the organization itself, which is so critical, but knowing that when we fund teams, very often we’re getting to a proof of concept, and they’re going to need to build it. So it’s just something I really love to do: take an innovation and a team and help turn that into something really impactful. We’re going to make mistakes, no doubt about it. But I’ve had a few lessons along the way, so they’re not all going to be mistakes.

I know at this point you have answered 1,000 variations of the question, “What the hell is ARPA-H?” So I won’t force you to do that. I know the founding mission of the organization is to invest in promising ideas that can’t be realized through the existing system of research organizations and commercial ones. What does that look like in practice? What kind of projects are you scouting for?

What’s interesting at ARPA-H is that all of the programs that we will launch this year — and I hope we launch quite a few — will be determined by the program manager. And so it’s very much a bottom-up organization. Even though we’ve identified some areas of health that we’re excited about funding, it’s this magic combination of finding a program manager who has a great CV and experience and is a doer, combined with this great idea in health that they want to solve.

Renee Wegrzyn
ARPA-H Director Renee Wegrzyn

Determining what’s appropriate for ARPA-H, we have a set of questions called the Heilmeier questions that we’ve adopted from DARPA, but we’ve added a few of our own. This is how we really assess “Is this ARPA-worthy?” So it’s not just the idea, but it’s the evidence that, OK, there’s mounting pressure, if you will, technological and innovation pressure where we start to see the insights that, with additional funding, we may be able to really accelerate an opportunity and bring it to the market to solve a problem.

The questions also define for us, what are the risks? How long does it take? How much is it going to cost? But importantly for ARPA-H, we’re also really challenging each of our program managers to ask how they are going to make this technology accessible. How are they going to make it cost-effective and then be something that the customer — which is going to be patients, health care providers — really wants to use? You don’t want these innovations to sit on the shelf.

We’re not here to replace anybody, but we’re here to be a catalyst to spur that downstream funding. I like to bring up the example of DARPA. Not everybody knows what DARPA is, but everybody knows about the internet and GPS, right? It’s about making the connection that, actually, there was a small government agency that put the funding forward to show that something was possible and create that initial catalyst. And that’s what we’re trying to do for health care.

You’re actively recruiting those program managers as we speak. What kind of people are you looking for? What characteristics set someone apart for a job like this?

The best candidates are really those folks that can think like a CEO. And what I mean by that is not only do they have to identify and have this very clear vision of what they’re trying to do, but they also have to be willing to roll up their sleeves and, on a day-to-day basis, really manage their program, from the budget that they have, from the teams that they’re going to fund, to make sure things are moving in the right direction. If they’re not, they might have to pivot their resources. To do that with the mindset of both the CEO and the scientist is a kind of a magical place for these program managers.

Other parts of the phenotype, if you will, is they’re not afraid of risk. So they’ll take on risk but also be able to be decisive and know when they hit a point where they’re probably not going to be able to move on, and then they can pivot.

Congress gave us legislation at the end of last year that locks program managers in for a base term of three years, renewable for up to another three. So you get the idea there’s this urgency. OK, you’re here three years to start. You have to move very quickly to make something happen and demonstrate, in some ways, the return on investment for the federal government. It’s giving the program managers the bank account to take a really big shot to change the state of the art for a given problem that they’re trying to solve.

The announcement of your appointment coincided with the 60th anniversary of the famous speech in which John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon.” That’s a weighty backdrop to starting a new job. Is there an equivalent moonshot in health? What’s the internet or GPS that ARPA-H might set in motion?

The biggest thing I can do, and why I came back to the federal government, is I truly believe that getting the culture of this organization right from day one is going to be the most important thing I do. To create a culture such that you can launch those moonshots, that you can fail, and have it be a safe place to fail and have open conversation and have scientific conflict with your peers, but in a way that is very productive. And that doesn’t just come to any organization. You have to nurture that. And that’s really what I’m trying to do here.

When Eisenhower stood up DARPA, he didn’t say, “We’re standing up DARPA in order to create the internet and GPS.” It was actually in response to Sputnik. We don’t have our own specific Sputnik moment, but it is, I think, a critical time. I really believe this is the century of biotechnology that we’re coming into. There’s all of this momentum around innovation, but coupled with some really significant crises, whether it’s the pandemic, or climate change, or economic and social challenges. There’s this energy there, and I think that that is what’s really helping us really pull forward.

So let’s have this conversation 10, 20 years from now, and I feel if I’ve done my job right, we’ll have created an environment that can allow those big shots.

Source: STAT