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Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.

Draper Laboratory has honed weapons systems for the Defense Department, helped bring NASA astronauts back to Earth, and pursued cutting-edge brain projects for the National Institutes of Health.

But the nonprofit research institute based in Cambridge, Mass., is increasingly looking to the private sector for its future business. As the federal government has cut back on research and development spending, Draper and other labs-for-hire are pursuing industry customers in hot fields like life sciences, aerospace, and energy.


For Draper, it’s not a full makeover by any means. Commercial contracts have accounted for less than 5 percent of its annual revenue of more than $500 million in recent years, and Draper executives want that to grow to 20 percent in the next three years.

“We are going to continue to be a federal contractor … but I think what we want to tell people is we’re not just a federal contractor,” said Draper CEO and president Kaigham J. Gabriel.

That commercial involvement may also be an asset to their governmental clients, Gabriel said. And he should know — Gabriel joined Draper in 2014 after roles as a Google executive and senior official at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon. “If you want to be an informed, capable contributor to federal contracts … you need to know what’s happening on the cutting edge of the commercial world.”


Around the country, research institutes that receive government funding are hunting for more private sector contracts as federal dollars have been slashed in recent years, said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank. That echoes what is happening in academic labs as well.

“They see the handwriting on the wall, unless there’s a change, which one could hope for,” Atkinson said.

Draper is especially well-positioned for life sciences work, situated among the biotech and pharma action in the Kendall Square neighborhood, and executives said their partnership ambitions span from small startups to huge conglomerates. The lab’s repositioning also dovetails with the biopharmaceutical industry relying less on in-house research and more on what are known as contract research or manufacturing organizations.

Draper Labs
Kaigham J. Gabriel (left) became Draper’s CEO and president in 2014 after roles as a Google executive and senior official at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Tara Clark started last week as Draper’s vice president of commercial business after more than two decades in biotech and medical devices. Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe

In Draper’s case, companies can hire the lab to design and build system models or device prototypes for new projects they may want to start, saving them from launching the initiatives internally. The lab has started building microfluidic devices that small biotech companies can customize and order online. It is also working on projects around engineering the body’s T cells to fight tumors, part of the burgeoning field of immunotherapy.

In such a fast-moving industry, “the opportunity cost of waiting three years to get something done is huge,” said Tara Clark, who started last week as Draper’s vice president of commercial business after more than two decades in biotech and medical devices.

Some of what Draper is offering builds on prior projects funded by the federal government. Draper scientists have collaborated with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital on a DARPA-funded effort to treat anxiety using deep brain stimulation. Draper engineered the system’s sensors and electrodes to detect anxiety in one part of the brain and then calm neurons in another region. A company is now interested in how that technology could be applied for other conditions, though Gabriel would not say more about the customer and its plans.

The DARPA and NIH collaborations have also contributed to Draper’s development of organs-on-a-chip. The tool serves as a miniature model of different organ systems, so a biopharma company could test, for example, how a drug targeting kidney cells affects lung cells. Testing on that level could reduce the chances of unexpected reactions when the drug moves into human studies, and preclude costly and time-consuming setbacks.

“If it has a bad reaction, we’ll see it,” Gabriel said.

Raanan Miller, a former Draper researcher who is now associate director of the MIT Energy Initiative, said Draper has always had some interest in commercial applications of their research; Miller in fact spun out work he had done there into a company called Sionex that developed chemical and biological sensor chips.

Miller also pointed to Draper’s long history — more than 80 years — as an asset for new customers. Algorithms engineers have developed for navigation and defense, for example, could be applied to protect electrical grids from cyberattacks, he said.

Gabriel also plans to refresh the look of Draper’s headquarters, bringing a bit of the startup atmosphere to the institution. Individual offices that ring the outside of the building are being replaced one floor at a time with a more open layout. Teams of engineers will be able to assemble clusters of desks and then break them apart once their project is done.

But even with modern touches, some things aren’t changing. Draper will still be working on highly-secure projects for the government, and that means identification needs to be visible at all times — something that Clark said wasn’t de rigueur at her past jobs.

“Wearing my badge has taken a little getting used to,” she joked.