Isabel Thompson 🚢

Oct 24, 2022

Does your idea matter? 7 questions developed by a DARPA director to assess research proposals

If you have a radical new technology and want to create a better research (or startup) proposal, here are 7 questions that can help you focus your pitch.

These questions were formulated by George H. Heilmeier. He was director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 1975-1977. They questions are known as the Heilmeier Catechism.

They were designed "to help Agency officials think through and evaluate proposed research programs".

The questions are:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.

  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?

  • What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?

  • Who cares? If you're successful, what difference will it make?

  • What are the risks and the payoffs?

  • How much will it cost? How long will it take?

  • What are the midterm and final "exams" to check for success? (e.g. metrics; course corrections; knowing when you're done)

Parallels with startups

You may recognise parallels with startup pitch decks: Mission, vision, problem, solution, competitors, market, team, finance etc.

This is not a coincidence.

How to use the questions

You can answer these questions explicitly in your pitch, or work through them before writing a proposal to provide clarity.

It's a good idea to:

  • Make it easy for a reviewer to find your answers and quote them in a review.

  • Make your answers as specific, data-backed, and jargon-free as possible.

This is even more important when your reviewers may not be experts in your area.

You don't have to use the exact questions, but make sure you address each of the points.

The goal: make it easy to see why your project matters.

You can find the questions on the DARPA website here: https://www.darpa.mil/work-with-us/heilmeier-catechism

Isabel Thompson 🚢

For the entrepreneurial scientist