Can the government make a new DARPA?

The government’s foreign aid agency is shifting its focus to research and development to revolutionize the way the United States helps save lives throughout the developing world.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is hoping that its new Global Development Lab could replicate the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which had a hand in creating everything from the Internet to the stealth fighter to Apple’s voice operating system Siri.

To fund the lab, USAID has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars over recent years. In 2008, it spent about $127 million on research and development. Now, that number is about $611 million. 

But instead of defense networks and revolutionary warplanes, the new effort is aimed at ending poverty around the globe.

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“USAID is really fundamentally changing how we approach development, prioritizing science, technology and partnerships across our international efforts because we really think that with science and technology breakthroughs we can help bring an end to global poverty,” said Lona Stoll, one of the leads of the effort.

The lab builds on a USAID pilot program that helped spur more than 6,000 ideas.

Among them is an antiretroviral drug to fight AIDS that comes in a container like a ketchup packet and doesn’t require refrigeration or a syringe. The kits, costing just 2 cents each, are “transformational in terms of stopping the transmission of HIV/AIDS,” Stoll told The Hill.

The pilot effort also supported a car mechanic in Argentina who came up with a new device to help untrained midwives deliver babies. The service is now in clinical trials in the U.S. and could soon make its way around the world.

“To solve our most intractable development challenges, USAID has established a new way of working, bringing on board the best and brightest staff and new partners, all working in concert to help end extreme poverty,” agency administrator Raj Shah said in a statement.

The effort is getting off the ground with about 150 USAID staffers, plus beginning contributions from 32 corporate and academic giants like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Duke University.

“This is really a way to take taxpayer dollars and stretch them to go further, to leverage private funds and to connect what we're trying to do in development with world-class experts that sit in the U.S. government,” Stoll said.