Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the federal government’s new $2.5 billion health research agency, represents a break from the way the U.S. traditionally underwrites medical research. 

That showed this week, as ARPA-H issued its first funding opportunities.

Launched last year by President Joe Biden, and reaffirmed in his just-released budget proposal, ARPA-H put out a call for an unidentified number of contracts to develop ideas for improving healthcare. The agency said it’s soliciting biomedical and health research that investigates “unconventional approaches and challenge[s] accepted assumptions.” 

The call for proposals was part of a broader announcement earlier this week marking the agency’s one-year one-year anniversary

“With today’s announcements, ARPA-H is officially open for business,” declared Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the agency’s inaugural director.

The agency represents a significant departure from the way the government has typically paid for biomedical research. The Biden administration hopes the effort will help deliver transformative healthcare products on a faster timeline and with more tolerance for risk.

It’s modeled on the Department of Defense’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose seminal contributions range from the predecessor to the Internet (ARPANET) and global positioning system (GPS) to Operation Warp Speed, of COVID-19 vaccine fame.

ARPA-H also kicked off a competitive search for two hub locations as well as an idea competition. One of the two geographic locations, a customer experience hub, will collaborate with researchers on projects like designing clinical trials or bringing new products to market. Meanwhile, the other will focus on providing resources to support innovators.

ARPA-H invites non-profit consortia, usually composed of government-industry teams, to apply for the agency’s hub’s in these other locales. Each will retain a “light footprint” and small number of employees. Congress wants it to open a third location, in the Washington, D.C. area.

Meanwhile, the idea competition is a March Madness-style contest looking for “revolutionary evidence-based ideas.” The so-called “ARPA-H Dash” will use a bracket format and online discussion and voting to narrow submissions from the general public from 64 to an eventual champion idea by next month. 

Ideas will be grouped within ARPA-H’s strategic focus areas. There’s a grand prize of $15,000.

As for the new director, she hails from the biotech industry. Before being appointed by Biden, Wegrzyn served as a VP of business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and head of innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, where she focused on applying synthetic biology to outpace infectious diseases.