This month, a satellite engineer who had no background in oceanography won an international competition to predict where a “message in a bottle” will drift on the open sea. In addition to the fact that the winner seemed to be a long shot, almost as surprising is the fact that the organizer of the event was the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Forecasting Floats in Turbulence (FFT) challenge, which was part of the agency’s Ocean of Things program, was aimed to improve the understanding of the turbulent convergence of wind, waves, and currents on the surface of the ocean. According to DARPA, “The goal of the challenge was to spur development of algorithms to better predict where free-drifting floats will travel over time.”

In total, 32 teams entered the competition, and Chris Wasson, who entered as Second Sight Predictions, came out on top with 498 points, and won a prize of $25,000 in the process.

This is just the latest effort by DARPA to connect with civilian designers and innovators.

A Storefront For Companies

It was a year ago in January 2021 that DARPA had announced plans to create what was described as a “storefront” for companies to access information and to learn how to sell their products to the Department of Defense (DoD). The effort was first announced by Victoria Coleman, who had been named to head the agency in August 2020.

“If I have a place where … there’s foot traffic, people just come in and they think ‘What is that? Well, maybe my company can play in that,'” Director Coleman told reporters a year ago.

She further suggested it would be a casual, even an informal space where individuals would begin to have a better understanding of how DARPA operates and what opportunities are available for small business and other tech innovators. It was meant to provide a gateway to the DoD marketplace – which can be a challenge for those without connections to the defense sector already in place.

“The concept for a DARPA ‘Genius Bar,’ which was proposed by director Coleman, was both wise and sound,” said technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT.

“For one thing, a ‘customer-friendly’ program or portal could help to dispel any myths or miscommunications surrounding what has long been one of the DoD’s less visible organizations,” King told ClearanceJobs. “In addition, the effort reflects ever-growing familiarity with technology that is commonplace among both military personnel and civilians.”

Genius Bar – Not Open For Business (Yet?)

Yet, since it was first hyped last January, there hasn’t been much word on the so-called DARPA “Genius Bar,” but that doesn’t mean that DARPA has completely cooled on the idea of such an installation. Tech incubators come and go with disturbing regularity, and it is likely that DARPA would want to avoid the pitfalls of a misstep in a world where such missteps can be a serious setback for start ups.

“Why little appears to have happened with the program is uncertain. It may be that Director Coleman has more important matters to attend to, or that developing a workable template or infrastructure has been more complex than originally anticipated, especially in light of the ever evolving restrictions necessitated by Covid,” added King.

Another factor could be industry pushback. The tech world may have reconsidered how it wants to work with the DoD.

“It is also entirely possible that external issues have caused the agency to reconsider or rethink the program,” King told ClearanceJobs. “Over the past three to four years, employees of major IT vendors, including Google, Microsoft and Amazon have objected to those companies’ DoD contracts so it seems possible that DARPA’s ‘Genius Bar’ would become an unintended lightning rod for complaints or protests. If that were the case, the potential value of the program could be seriously eroded.”

DARPA Outreach Continued

Even as the Genius Bar storefront is still yet to launch, DARPA continues to look for the “next big thing” via an array of programs.

Last fall it awarded Caterina Lamuta, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa, the Young Investigator Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop new self-morphing, stretchable soft skins (S⁴) for use in underwater vehicles and robots.

The DARPA award will fund Lamuta’s work for the next three years and is one of the most prestigious awards professors can receive early in their careers.

In addition, DARPA held the now annual “Subterranean Challenge.” The event pushes the bounds of what autonomous vehicles are capable of. Held outside of Louisville, Kentucky, the program offered $5 million in total prizes – and last year’s competition included eight systems team and 12 virtual teams taking part.

The agency awarded another $5.8 million as part of its INfluence Campaign Awareness and Sensemaking (INCAS) program, which is an ongoing effort to combat the spread of Covid-19 related misinformation that has been spreading online.

While the DARPA storefront may not be open yet, the agency has certainly continued to introduce a variety of competitions as part of its outreach efforts. These will certainly continue through 2022 and beyond.


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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.