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ARPA-H: Venture Capitalism is What We Do

The agency’s deputy director offers advice for those pitching technology concepts for high-risk, high-reward health missions.

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ARPA-H Deputy Director Susan Monarez
ARPA-H Deputy Director Susan Monarez speaks at HIMSS in Orlando, Florida, March 12, 2024. Photo Credit: GovCIO Media & Research

ORLANDO – ARPA-H wants hopeful applicants vying for funding to treat it like any other venture capitalist from the commercial sector, Deputy Director Susan Monarez said at the HIMSS conference in Orlando, Florida, Tuesday.

“Do your due diligence that you would do if you were pitching to a [venture capitalist] — because that’s what we do,” Monarez said. “We function much more like the VC community than we do a traditional funding agency.”

The newest federal agency has a lofty mission: catalyze the next generation of treatments to improve the health of all Americans. ARPA-H is doing this on the heels of a pandemic that has changed the trajectory for federal technology and data programs across government.

This mission offers no shortage of candidates pitching to develop the next solution to transform health care. But, winning a seat at this table is competitive and unlike any other funding program.

“We’re funding at a very low rate right now. Maybe 1 to 2% of all the abstracts that come in are something that we will fund,” she said. “When we do fund it, we’re going to negotiate with you and we’re going to say, ‘Make sure that this is not redundant to anything else that we have seen in this space.’”

Monarez offered insight into the types of concepts the agency goes for and how its funding approach differs from others in the public health research community like the National Institutes of Health. In a nutshell, ARPA-H is looking for projects with high risks and high rewards.

“We will take on riskier things than VCs will,” she said. “We don’t need you to have 20 publications or 200 publications on this topic area. … We want ‘90% is unknown, but 10% exists.’”

Part of what separates ARPA-H from counterparts like, for example, the Defense Department’s DARPA, is how the agency focuses on commercializing technology.

“We have an entire unit within our organization focused on transition,” she said about the agency’s “hub-and-spoke” organization that now has around 200 “spokes.” “We have a real opportunity to take those products that capability, those performers and link them directly to a commercial pathway of investors so that we have this warm handoff in the industry where our products don’t get left behind.”

Monarez teased upcoming open calls for funding opportunities within each of its focus areas that it had released as part of an open announcement last year. She noted these future opportunities will enable applicants to be much more tailored in their pitches.

“Depending on what you’re interested in doing, you can apply specifically to those funding areas and have a much more tailored approach to what you’re applying for and receiving it,” she added.

Monarez cited recent programs that she sees on a path to making great impacts, such as its ADvanced Analysis for Precision cancer Therapy (ADAPT) program that aims to improve cancer treatment by better predicting how tumors mutate.

As artificial intelligence continues to show promise within health care, ARPA-H is exploring future opportunities framed around four verticals for the technology: patient, provider, payer and infrastructure.

As for generative AI, Monarez wants to explore the technology for its potential impact in system design.

“What would it take from a system design perspective within our own organization to pull all of that data together and to say, ‘What are truly the gaps? Where do we really not know something that would help treat glioblastoma? And in knowing that, what are the next three sets of investments?”

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