What is (and is not) an FRO?


What is and is not an FRO?

First off - what is a Focused Research Organization? An FRO is a new organizational structure for doing science. FROs undertake projects that:

  • Require more tightly coordinated effort/engineering than a single academic lab can offer

  • Too complex for a loose, multi-lab collaboration

  • Not directly profitable enough for a venture-backed startup or industrial R&D project

An FRO is a fixed-duration project (existing FROs are 5-7 year projects with around 10-30 employees) led by technical founders. For example, one existing FRO, Cultivarium, focuses on building an end-to-end toolkit for cultivating currently unculturable microbes. Such a toolkit would considerably accelerate the study and engineering of microorganisms for applications in industrial biotechnology, carbon removal, and beyond.

There are many different institutions and organizations for solving scientific problems, and some institutions fit specific problems better than others.

To understand the differences and to know which avenue should be pursued, the FAQ from this paper is extremely helpful (I have made slight additions). This could be considered a checklist that pertains to the nature of the project or idea.

Note: In this context, an ARPA is an “Advanced Research Projects Agency”, like DARPA. “Academia” is a standard academic lab with a single PI, postdocs, and student researchers. Meanwhile “startups” refer to deep tech startups that aim to solve a technical problem and commercialize it, like many of the companies here.

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

    • Good FROs tackle a core problem that is causing a bottleneck in an entire scientific or translational pipeline

      • The best FROs may target problems we usually don't even think about because we assume they are unchangeable or take for granted

      • For example, if the biggest block to developing scalable fusion projects is building software that can run really good hydrodynamics simulations (it probably is not, but supposing it is), a great FRO would be able to develop that and accelerate the field significantly.

  • Execution ability of founding team

    • An FRO requires tightly coordinated execution at a quick pace consistently

  • 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.

      • This takes the best advantage of the organizational structure of an FRO. For example, a less-centralized project might be better done as an ARPA project or traditional grant program.

  • Specificity of milestones

    • Is the technical roadmap well-laid-out for the next several years?

    • Can milestones be specified to measure how the project is going?

  • Feasibility in standard academic lab

    • Project is too large for a single lab, or a collaboration of several labs, to take on

      • “Could this be easily done as an academic project given funding?” is one of the first and most important filters for what a good FRO idea is not

  • 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

  • Ambitious but not infeasible.

    • FROs are for really ambitious projects, but they should still be possible, and we should be able to see a pretty clear path or paths to be able to justify a FRO!

What is not an FRO?

  1. Hiring the best 20 researchers in a field and letting them work on blue-sky, individual projects:

  • This doesn't take advantage of the multidisciplinary hiring opportunity or startup-like org structure of FROs

  1. Keep doing what a lab is already doing, just with more money:

  • Doesn't take advantage of the FRO's independent, nonprofit status. E.g. the ability to hire engineers or other non-trainee talent at industry wages or do non-publishable work.

  1. (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.

Related readings:

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.