By charting out the landscape of institutions and organizations, it is easier to understand under which umbrella a project fits. A DARPA project sounds awesome, but if it is not the right mechanism to solve a problem then it is possibly not going to work. In other words, you wouldn’t want to drive a sports car on water, even if you really like sports cars.
Assuming it does fall reasonably well within the checklist above, here is my guess of some important considerations for what might make a good FRO.
Magnitude of positive impact on science and society if successful
Execution ability of founding team
Coordination/centralization required to accomplish project
The project should ideally require a highly centralized, tightly coordinated team. It would be somewhat akin, in both funding scale and human capital organization, to a deep tech Series A startup.
Specificity of milestones
Feasibility in standard academic lab
Near-term commercial potential for certain spinoffs, assuming that the FRO technical milestones are achieved, but also a significant focus on broad release of public goods that lift and entire R&D field
Hiring the best 20 researchers in a field and letting them work on blue-sky, individual projects:
Keep doing what a lab is already doing, just with more money:
(Sometimes) Directly work on the biggest intellectual/commercial challenge in the field
FROs exist to catalyze problems getting solved. That's not always the same as directly working on the biggest problem
FROs are justified not by the raw value of their output but by their comparative advantage: doing things academia and industry can't do.
Another unique feature of an FRO is that it necessitates a roadmap that the team can follow throughout the duration of the project. While scientific roadmapping can be a nebulous term, in this context it means charting out exactly what is necessary to achieve the end goal of the FRO - and how to do it. Convergent Research can provide feedback on FRO ideas.
While FROs sunset after 5-7 years, it is hoped that non-profit organizations or startups will be created based on the work done by the FRO or that other organizations will take up FRO talent and technology to scale the work further.
Unblock research bottlenecks with non-profit start-ups
How to think about the differences between FROs and private ARPA programs
Nadia Asparouhova | Idea machines
Special thank you to Milan Cvitkovic and Adam Marblestone for feedback and insight on this piece, as well as the Convergent Research team more broadly.