‘You are Given the Tools to Make Something Happen’: DARPA Microsystems Chief on New Role

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DARPA Microsystems Technology Office Director Thomas Lee, Photo: DARPA.mil

Thomas Lee, the new director of the Microsystems Technology Office of the super high-tech Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is no slouch.

He served as a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford for 17 years, founded two tech start-ups and just this month was awarded the Ho-Am Prize in Engineering, known as the “Korean Nobel.”

So what led Lee to take on a government-agency role?

It boiled down to a combination of patriotism, DARPA’s leadership team and the agency’s “vibrant” opportunities.

“The fact that we have real world needs that have to be solved yesterday, if not sooner, adds an urgency that provides a sharp focus absent in a lot of other places,” Lee said of his new position.

DARPA’s microsystems office has been responsible for “critical breakthroughs” in microelectronics, nanotechnology and photonics in the defense and civilian spheres, according to a blog post by Tom Kalil, a deputy director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Lee put it more poetically: “DARPA is a place where you are given the tools to make something happen.”

It’s no secret the agency has been working hard to forge connections with the academic community.

In recent congressional testimony DARPA Director Regina Dugan said the agency’s efforts to strengthen its ties to the university and research world has paid very real dividends.

In the five years before 2009, DARPA hired an average of two university faculty or researchers to fill DARPA program manager positions. In 2010, that number had climbed to 10, Dugan said.

And Lee has unique perspective having served in both entrepreneurial roles and academia.

He said his experience in both the business and scholarly sectors “affords the ability for leadership to say ‘this isn’t just a great scientific thing, it’s also evaluated against a set of practical criteria.’”

He added, “It’s not just about having great thoughts, but instead it’s about the entire chain from concept to realization.”

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