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 to bankroll potentially transformative projects that might otherwise slip through the cracks of traditional funding.
STAT caught up with Wegrzyn to discuss the organization’s mission and the importance of establishing the right culture on day one. — Damian Garde
The founding mission of ARPA-H 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.