Innovation takes many forms and all of them are important as the U.S. and other countries look for ways to avoid a catastrophe from climate change. Over the years, the federal government in Washington has been a big contributor to science and technology in energy, the environment and other fields. And that’s likely to continue. But given the immensity of climate change and other challenges, new options for enabling breakthrough technology are important, too.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless reaches out to someone with a lot of experience with science and engineering in government, the private sector and finance. Arati Prabhakar was the head of the Defense Research Projects Agency at the U.S. Department of Defense, better known as DARPA, during the Obama administration and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology under President Bill Clinton.
Arati’s family emigrated to the U.S. from India when she was a young girl, and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Texas Tech before heading to the California Institute of Technology, where she received a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in applied physics.
Between her stints in Washington at NIST and DARPA, she moved to Silicon Valley, where she was chief technology officer and senior vice president at Raychem Corp. and then vice president and president of Interval Research. Later, she was a partner with U.S. Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm.
Now, she’s back in Silicon Valley as a founder and the CEO of Actuate, which bills itself as a new kind of nonprofit organization, formed to contribute a fresh approach to society’s critical challenges, like climate change. In short, Arati sees a bigger role for philanthropy to play in addressing climate change.
Bill spoke with Arati about this new approach and why she thinks it fills a gap in public support for science and technology. They also talked about her experience in Washington, which over the years saw the U.S. government try different ways of advancing promising but risky technologies in energy and other fields.
Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless. Innovation takes many forms and all of them are important as the U.S. and other countries look for ways to avoid a catastrophe from climate change. Over the years, the federal government in Washington has been a big contributor to science and technology and energy, the environment and other fields. And that's likely to continue, but given the immensity of climate change and other challenges facing us, new options for enabling breakthrough technology are important too. With that in mind, I reached out to someone with a lot of experience with science and engineering and the government, the private sector and finance. Arati Prabhakar was the head of the Defense Research Projects Agency at the U.S. Department of Defense, better known as DARPA, during the Obama administration and Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology under President Bill Clinton. Arati’s family emigrated to the United States from India when she was a young girl and she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Texas Tech, before heading to Cal Tech, where she received a master's degree in electrical engineering, and a PhD in Applied Physics. Between her stints in Washington at NIST and DARPA, she moved to Silicon Valley, where she was chief technology officer and senior vice president at Raychem Corp. and then vice president and president of Interval Research. Later, she was a partner with U.S. Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm.
Now, she’s back in Silicon Valley as a founder and the CEO of Actuate, which bills itself as a new kind of nonprofit organization, one formed to contribute a fresh approach to society’s critical challenges, like climate change.
I spoke with Arati about this new approach and why she thinks it fills a gap in public support for science and technology. We also talked about her experience in Washington, which over the years saw the U.S. government try different ways of advancing promising but risky technologies in energy and other fields. Well, here's our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Arati Prabhakar, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.
Arati Prabhakar: It's great to be here with you, Bill.
Bill Loveless: Well, let's, we have so much to talk about in terms of innovation and new opportunities and different ways of going about this.
You certainly have a long track record in this field, and I look forward to talking about it. But first, for the sake of our audience, let's talk a bit about you. Your interest in science and engineering began as a girl and led to a career that spanned Washington and Silicon Valley, tell us a bit about that journey, and how it made you what you are today.
Arati Prabhakar: I feel that I've just been so fortunate because I've gotten to work on some really hard problems and make some progress. And my journey, I'm at the point now where I look back over three decades. And that period, has been split between two lives, one has been public service and one has been in Silicon Valley. I got to lead NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, from 93 to 97 so quite some time ago. We then moved to Silicon Valley. And I worked in a couple of companies, but spent most of our time, my time out here in early-stage venture capital doing semiconductor and clean tech investing. And then in 2012, I got the call to ask if I would go back to DARPA where I had been very early in my career to run that agency, at which point my husband and I looked at each other and said, I guess we're going to pack up our teenage kids and move back and do that, that is not a call to which you have any, I couldn't possibly have any answer other than yes. And so I got to run DARPA, from 2012 to 17. And it was actually as I was leaving DARPA, you know, thinking about the fact that I'd gotten to work on all these different aspects of technology for national security and the commercial world. And it was reflecting on that, that led to what I'm doing now. I loved what we do with innovation in this country, I think we have the most phenomenal innovation engine the world has ever built the half a trillion a year that we spend on research and development, public and private. My deep concern was that we are not generating the new kinds of solutions that we need for the hardest societal problems that are ahead of us now. And that's what I really wanted to go work on. And that ultimately led to starting really a brand new type of nonprofit called Actuate. And that's what I'm off doing now.
Bill Loveless: Well, I mean, as I recall you, I mean, your family came to the United States from India. You were just a young girl at the time. It was your mom who encouraged you to get as much education as you could, including a PhD, I think. And doggone it, you went on and did that, you know, becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in Applied Physics at Caltech. I read in a Caltech profile, by the way that the most important thing you learned at that school was that you didn't want to do what was expected of you.
Arati Prabhakar: Yeah, you know, a lot of the fun of a journey like this is, so many times I did what I thought was the right next thing and I learned a lot. But then I realized that I didn't want to stay on that same track. And I think, you know, anyone who gets to do really interesting things, but the most exciting moments are where you leave the track that you're supposed to be on. So time after time, I left graduate school, I went to Washington on a congressional fellowship, this is back in 84. And everyone in academia just thought I had lost my marbles. I mean, I just couldn't understand it. And then I went to work in the Defense Department as a young Program Manager at DARPA, no one understood that. I left Washington to come to Silicon Valley, no one got that. And so, now I've gotten used to the idea that if it's the right, next move, I just go do it.
Bill Loveless: And I have to say, for full disclosure, I covered you back when you were at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And it was a period of reporting that I really enjoyed. It was a time of great change. I mean, the early 90s, the United States had just won the Cold War. There was an understanding, I think that a greater understanding of the environment, including climate change. We had seen the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was negotiated and signed by some 154 countries back in the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at that time, and we were all reading it seemed Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance that helped put environment on the national agenda. A lot was going on at that time.
Arati Prabhakar: Yeah. And you know, I think today, I think we are at one of the most exciting junctures and with a real sense of possibility. And the factors are somewhat different. Today, back then we were talking about the Japanese and what they were going to do to us economically today, I think the focus is much more China, very different situation, but also super important. And of course, we're at this pivot point. And really, fortunately, I think we're finally starting to take climate seriously. So, in a sense, it's a similar kind of time period, I think.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. You know, talking about that time period transitions that. Again, I was reading up on you recently and an interview in the Caltech alumni magazine, Techer, you recall how World War Two was a pivot point in R&D in the United States, it was a time when we harnessed all types of innovation in order to win the war. And the impact of those advances in that way of doing things continued for years. But now you said, it's time to think about challenges of a new era. It's an interesting perspective. Tell us about that.
Arati Prabhakar: Yeah, this is this is exactly why we decided we needed to go start Actuate. If you think I talked about the half a trillion dollars a year in our economy that we spend on research and development.
If you look at it, where those resources go, it's driving Information Technology, it's driving biomedicine. It's for national security. A really important slice is funding basic research across our universities. And if you look back to 1945, and the post-World War Two agenda for research in America for R&D for innovation, Vannevar Bush wrote the document, Endless Frontier for President Roosevelt. And what he identified the national purposes that he identified are exactly those he said national security, even in a time of peace, he said health we went a little narrower, we only did biomedicine good that we did that but a little unfortunate that we forgot about population health. He focused on the importance of basic research and a foundation of research. And then of course, you know, the information revolution sort of grew out of a lot of that.
So, check, we did those things. We are really good at those missions. None of those problems or opportunities are done. So, lots and most of mostly the community that's thinks about innovation, they think about those kinds of problems. And good, because we need to do that better and better and better. But you know, a few years have passed since 1945, and if we stand today, you know, here we are in 2021. Now, let's look forward. And if I look to the decades ahead, I think, what keeps me up nights, what are the challenges, the make-or-break challenges for us as a society, access to opportunity for every person, population health, trust in democracy in an age of information and mitigating climate change, those to me are the things that we have to wrestle with, have to wrangle. And we don't know how we're going to get there quite yet, on any I mean we're making progress in some of those areas. But we don't really know how we're going to get there. And when I say that, to me, it's a clarion call for innovation. And I think, learning what we can, adapting what we know really works from the classic models of innovation that we have bringing them to these new societal challenges. That's what I think the biggest opportunity is right now.
Bill Loveless: And when we look back at some of those huge undertakings by the government winning the war, for example, and there's any number of other episodes, we could point to, we're talking about industrial policy. And there's a lot of talk today about the role of industrial policy or government support for particular industries that are deemed strategically important. Do you think there's a fundamental reconsideration of industrial policy underway today? And if so, in what direction is it taking?
Arati Prabhakar: I don't know what direction it's going. I think that's an extremely important question right now, I do think we're now in a season in which that's no longer a dirty word, right. It's no longer the third rail. And for a very long time, I think we had this oversimplified notion that the government's role in innovation is just to stay pure, and just do science. And then the market will magically take care of everything else. And of course, there are places where that works. But you know, I think we just need to be very clear that for some of the hard really fundamentally hard problems for society, that is not going to get us there, climate being the prime example. And that's a model that works really well, when you're the only superpower in the world. And the rest of the world is still recovering after the Second World War. That is not the global economy that we live in today. So I think we're now in this moment and China and the climate are two of the really big factors. I think we're in this moment in which there is great openness, a lot of interesting proposals flying around, I think and hope some very good experiments will get done. And I also think it's important to stay really thoughtful and rooted in what's the power of the market? What is it phenomenally good at doing? It is, the U.S. market economy is the best machinery the world has ever seen for allocating resources, people and capital, when ideas are at the point that you can see profits, and you can see growth.
So let's not lose sight of that while we understand that there are other roles that the government needs to play, besides the ones that it has traditionally been very strong at.
Bill Loveless: I want to talk, of course, about where you see things headed or possibly headed in the role that you're playing now as head of Actuate. But I want to talk a little bit more about what we've learned so far, because it comes that kind of discussion. And retrospective, perhaps comes at an interesting time. You know, we're seeing major plans by the Biden administration and in Congress to address climate change, including big increases for funding of research, development and deployment in the federal government,
You've seen this sort of commitment to Energy Technology before starting back in the Clinton administration, when you were head of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. And of course, later at DARPA. NIST is again, I covered this at that time, and its advanced technology program, and it was seen as sort of the ARPA-E of its day. NIST was, and commerce were the lead civilian technology agencies in the mind of the Clinton administration. And you as the very young director of NIST was in charge of putting those into place because things didn't go quite as you might have planned. The Congress changed Republican.
Arati Prabhakar: They weren’t great for a while and then that experiment ended exactly.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. But what have we learned from that from you know, that there's that experiences DARPA, which led to an ARPA-E and the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Department of Energy? What have you learned from your own involvement in those periods?
Arati Prabhakar: Let me maybe give you two parts of the answer to that. Number one, the Advanced Technology Program at NIST starting in the late 80s, and running I would say probably about a decade. I don't know remember exactly. I came into NIST in 1993, at the start of the Clinton administration, I came from DARPA, in large part because of the desire to build the advanced technology from the small seed stage effort that it currently was. That was a program that was aimed at the issues of economic competitiveness for American industry. And it functioned by doing Contracts and Grants, with companies to go after new technologies that can break open big new areas. And we grew it to about $300 million a year, when I looked at a number of very interesting things came out of that it was actually one of the most thoroughly rigorously evaluated programs, I think we've ever done, including National Academy studies that looked at what came out of it. One thing, just as an example, that I'm very proud of out of that, at that time, the Human Genome Project was underway, a lot of great science going on, but we really didn't, you know, no one could imagine how we were going to be able to sequence the genome is a huge number of chains just a massive number. And we had very slow sequencing capability, sort of lab scale. The Advanced Technology program funded a group of companies that essentially blew the door off of gene sequencing. And if you look today, at the gene sequencing industry, a lot of it all the interesting companies have their roots back in that program. And of course, gene sequencing, made it possible to do all kinds of things, including, you know, dealing with the Coronavirus that we're dealing with today. So I'm extremely proud of that work. And I think it was a very successful program. It fell in partisan times it was killed, ultimately. I want to be, that was about economic advancement. And now so now fast forward, we have ARPA-E, which has been underway for a decade. I'm a huge fan, I think it has some similarities. Obviously, when I went to NIST in 1993 from DARPA, I was bringing a DARPA mindset to how we thought about ATP. ARPA-E was explicitly started from the beginning to be modeled on the ARPA model, but adapting it to the issues of clean energy, and they're just doing great, right? I mean, I think they've given DOE a really fresh, powerful new way to make contributions towards its mission.
I think they've done a great job of adapting the right elements of the DARPA model. But you know, it's not adopt, it's adapt, because they're solving a different set of problems. And it's the kind of thing that gives me hope. Now, I want, so that's part one is I think, and I think the DARPA model is one of the most powerful things we've really refined over the last many decades, I think, I love seeing it adapted and seeing it working. That's very much a theme and what we're doing it actually.
Bill Loveless: I just want to point out that, you know, the Advanced Technology Program ran into, you know, partisan difficulties, Republicans oppose that. And the whole notion of that sort of support by government for advanced technologies just in fly with the new Republican Congress that came in and I guess in 1995. ARPA-E has enjoyed bipartisan support. It was authorized under the Bush administration, and first funded under the Obama administration. So it was somewhat of a difference here, some things did change. Even in this partisan climate we're in today, there were some bipartisan agreement on these sorts of things at some point and perhaps more now.
Arati Prabhakar: I couldn't agree more. You know, ATP started as a very bipartisan push. It did run into the buzzsaw of partisanship, I can't tell you how much time I spent working with people on both sides of the aisle to build support for it. But I you know, ultimately, I don't think we were successful with Republican support in that case. ARPA-E, again, started on a bipartisan basis, Arun Majumdar did a terrific job when he came in as the initial director, especially building that bipartisan support. And I think that one has really stuck. And I think it reflects as well, a shift in our understanding even across political lines today about how important clean energy and climate issues are.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I interrupted you, by the way, and I apologize. You were going to get on to another point. Point two.
Arati Prabhakar: Yeah. No, I think the other point, I think is important to make about everything we've been talking about is about this early stage of R&D, how do you create new technologies? And coming back to the climate challenge that we have, there's so much more that has to happen. So I just, I think it's important to keep it in the context of how do we really succeed at our big national challenges.
Bill Loveless: You know, how closely does ARPA-E align fundamentally with DARPA? I realized DARPA is much bigger. It's got a budget of something like 3.5 billion now I think ARPA-E is 427 million, not much more than what it started out with some years back. But fundamentally, are they comparable?
Arati Prabhakar: Well, let's see, are they comparable? Well, in the sense that they are both using a particular methodology where you bring in deeply expert driven program managers, I call them program directors, who then craft programs and then go fund the communities that it takes to achieve a goal. That's the center of how DARPA works. That's the center of how ARPA-E works.
You know DARPA is in its seventh decade and is three and a half billion, as you said ARPA-E has to my delight has now ramped to over 400 million, but it's only about a decade old. So you know, if I look across all of DARPA, about half of it is new enabling technologies that, you know, that's where the internet came from, a lot of the early advances in artificial intelligence, intelligence in advanced micro electronics, microsystems.
I think to me, ARPA-E looks more like that half of DARPA, rather than the other half of DARPA, which is prototypes of really advanced military systems, you know, mind-bendingly better military systems. And so I think that's exactly the right place for ARPA-E to have focused, especially given the size of resource that it's had up until now. But to me, it's an example of the one of the missing components still today, in going after our climate challenge, I think we have made some very important progress in the early stages of innovation. ARPA-E builds on top of what other parts of DOE, for example, have been doing largely in the national labs more on the basic research, early-stage technology side, organizations like Activate formerly Cyclotron Road are phenomenal at doing fellowships that help great researchers also launch companies and become good, you know, really strong business people.
We have Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Prime Coalition and other climate venture capitalists who are now, you can see all of these things that are about how do you do the white lab coat research? How do you give birth to companies then help them in their infancy and get them going? But again, that's just the early stage. And I think the rest of what needs to happen. And this is very much the focus of our work in our climate activities, that Actuate, there are so many barriers between that early stage and delivering gigatons per year of CO2 reductions, right? I mean, really getting emissions down is ultimately the point. And the barriers to getting that massive acceleration are immense. And I think that, to us is in a very different dimension of innovation and in a sense, it's a little bit more likely the more systems-oriented parts of DARPA.
Bill Loveless: And I want to get into that, as I mentioned in just a minute, one final thought, perhaps on what's past and what's happening today, the Biden administration as mentioned, is planning to ramp up government support for climate related science and technology, including things like ARPA-E, what have you made of the Biden agenda so far as to the extent we've seen some statements and all from the White House?
Arati Prabhakar: Yes, I mean, of course, it's all still forming. When I look at the ideas that are being considered, the specific areas, but also the collection of new activities, new investments that are being considered and that I hope will be proposed and then enacted. To me, it just raises hope. The climate challenge just feels overwhelming. And I think it can feel so overwhelming that it can stymie our action. It just feels hopeless so much of the time, but when you start to see our government making the moves to really step up and play its role, getting this ball going so that we have a real shot at getting to net zero emissions in time to prevent the worst disasters from climate change. That just really gives me tremendous hope. And so I think it's a very good sign, that huge amount of work to get it done politically and get the legislation in place, get funding going, and then another huge lift, to make sure that it's implemented in the most powerful possible way. But you don't even have a shot if you don't have that kind of political leadership and the idea of starting so it gets me hopping out of bed every morning. I think it's a very good sign.
Bill Loveless: Well, now you're ready to take on the what seems to be the biggest research and development challenge of your career. And that's reinventing innovation. It sounds like a pretty tall order. What do you have in mind?
Arati Prabhakar: It is a tall order. Well, so I wrestled with that question for a while because it was driving me nuts that we weren't really innovating for the most important challenges ahead, but then the question was, well, what am I going to do about it? And, you know, I think these challenges that we're facing as a society, they call to all of us. And we each need to figure out what it is we can bring to the table. And really the only thing I'm particularly good at, I've done a lot of different things in my career, the only thing I'm particularly good at is building and nurturing a group of people who want to develop radically better ways of solving problems. And it's what I love doing when I was leading DARPA. And it's what I think I can bring to the table. So we decided that, number one, if the future looks like this very robust, complex ecosystem, the psychology, that innovates for these major societal challenges the way we have it for last century's challenges today, if that's what the future looks like, a place to start is in the middle.
You can start with the basic research, you can start by implementing things in practice, but there's this place in the middle, we're calling it solutions R&D, that is about weaving together the new insights from research with what we're learning from the real world of practice and doing it in such a way that you create very powerful demonstrations of radically better ways of solving problems. And you do that at a level and at a scale and with a reach that is not only cool to the people who are doing it, but that changed the minds of the actors who need to start scaling it. And so you do this work that starts a very big structural shift. This is what DARPA has done in area after area in national security. And we think it's something that we can start building through philanthropic support in the nonprofit sector, for that model to scale is obviously going to take a lot more resources. And I would love to see over time public resources aligned with this.
But we think the way to start is not to write about it, but to go do it to show what it looks like, get the ball rolling and make people believe it and understand it and then want to adopt it and scale it. So that's the approach that we're taking overall. And then, of course, for each of these societal challenges access to opportunity or trust or climate, there's a very particular direction that we want to try to take it. But the overall notion is start building portfolios of these kinds of very powerful programs that create breakthroughs.
Bill Loveless: Can you give us an example of some activity that's either underway or the sort of thing that you contemplate doing there at Actuate?
Arati Prabhakar: Yes, absolutely. In climate, we're just getting started there. But we started scoping the place. This is an area where of course, there's rather a lot of R&D not yet enough, and not yet enough of all the different kinds that we need. So we started by scoping how we want to approach it. We think that more needs to be done at these early stages. We talked about ARPA-E and more of the basic research in the early company formation. I want all of those people to succeed and thrive because we need that to work and to continue to scale. But we didn't, we don't, I mean, I don't think you know, a decade ago, I think we had a huge hole there. Now I think we're actually making real progress. The place where I see a bigger concern and where I think a different kind of innovation is needed today is the question of how rapidly we can scale these infrastructures. So you know, solar, for example, is one of our greatest successes today. But solar, you know, despite the fact that solar and wind have grown faster for electricity generation than anyone imagined over the last 15 years.
Even despite that, together, they're only abating about 5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US or globally. And I think that's a really sobering reminder that, you know, these are technologies that took somewhere between five and 10 decades from the time that the first commercially viable systems were available to the point that they are just abating 5%. Now they're going to keep going, they really are a success story. But we just don't have five to 10 decades for all the next technologies to get to the point where they can really start super scaling for emissions reductions. And so that's the area where I think there are reasons, there are barriers, there at the system's level. This is not white lab coat research. It's about how do you get financing to flow? How do you take the risk out of adopting complex new systems?
Maybe I'll just give you a simple example. We don't know yet what the exact programs are that we're going to do. But here's the first example of something that we're looking at. Everyone's really excited that PV solar cells are super cheap. Now they're cheaper than you know fossil fuel-based generation. and lots of cases and so I think there's a little tendency to say okay job done that's going to happen now we can move on to other problems. The problem is as renewable penetration grows because it's such a variable resource whether you're depending on the wind or depending on the sun, the generation capacity itself can be really cheap but when you get to high renewables penetration and grid systems are no longer cheap because to deal with that variability you either have to build a lot of long transmission lines to get out of the local conditions but you need to maybe do some of that you need definitely you need storage which is still expensive and will be very expensive for a very long time or you need to do you know gas peaker plants and now you've got carbon dioxide again so one of the areas we're looking at those are all ways to get more generation but of course another piece of the puzzle might be demand response managing the load side instead and that's something that we do at a very marginal, I mean I think it's typically about 5% of how a utility manages variability today. We think it might be possible to have it be substantially more of the solution, but if you're going to do that you have to really understand how people live in their homes how commercial buildings operate, what kinds of appliances might be able to shift when they use electricity in ways that don't degrade the you know still meet the needs of the people who are living those buildings. So it's a very complex challenge and it we won't succeed until we demonstrate something that causes utilities to behave differently and therefore be able to keep driving forward with renewables penetration so it's a hard systems problem and those are the kinds of things that we're going to look into for our work there.
Bill Loveless: Yeah so to make sure I understand that I mean when we look at say an ARPA-E, they're working on you know off of basic research that's come so far and now they're trying to help further develop it and even ultimately deploy it. They're looking at it from very much a technological standpoint right on wall street and in financial communities or the venture capital community that you were once involved in you look at you do more of a financial assessment right? But I guess there's other factors you need to take into consideration too in terms of social concerns and all. Are you saying then that you'll take sort of a comprehensive look at these things taking into account all of these factors?
Arati Prabhakar: Exactly it's a comprehensive systems look and then the work that we would do should we go down this path would engage researchers who understand social behavior and you know electricity systems and grid systems. It would involve, there are a plethora of startups and bigger companies who are working on elements of demand response. Each of these parties is trying to solve the problem from where they are but some of the barriers are really systems level problems that no individual actor can get out but if we can engage them all and add our resources to do the experiment that makes the whole system work that's the kind of contribution I think we can make that can be a real accelerator.
Bill Loveless: And that's what you feel has been missing to some extent?
Arati Prabhakar: It's one of the missing pieces and it's the one that we think we can make a significant contribution with.
Bill Loveless: You started actually in 2019, where are you getting your funding from?
Arati Prabhakar: We were still at a seed stage we've been lucky enough to draw early support from donors as varied as Insight which is a donor founded by Matt Rogers originally the founder of Nest, the thermostat company that was acquired by Google. Packard Foundation is one of our donors, the Sloan Foundation is one of our donors, Smith Futures is another of our donors.
Bill Loveless: But you say that philanthropy has a bigger role to play and supporting energy, R&D, what do you mean by that?
Arati Prabhakar: You know the picture in my head, I like to work backwards, if we're going to get these massive infrastructure transitions across every sector of the economy done in time to really deal with the climate crisis. If you work backwards, that's 10s of trillions of dollars of capital to deploy new solutions, some of that is starting it's not going fast enough and there are places where it's not even started then government has a really critical role everything from these early R&D things that we've been talking about to tax credits to demonstration programs, loan guarantees environmental regulation, emissions standards, efficiency standards. I mean an incredibly important role to get the market moving fast enough and implementing things equitably if that's the role that government has to play and is now I think really amping up. Philanthropy is small, climate philanthropy I think is poised to grow dramatically, but it's never going to be 10s of trillions of dollars. So let's be clear about its role.
It has a very important catalytic role to play because of the things that the market can't and won't do. And because of the things that are very hard for government to do and getting these things started, being that catalyst to open up an experiment take the higher risk than is possible for the market and government to do easily. Those are the kinds of places where philanthropy can make a huge difference. To date, I think its biggest impact has been encouraging good policies and moving public opinion that's really important and needs to continue. Now we're seeing a lot more philanthropic focus on early-stage innovation. Activate and Breakthrough Energy Ventures and. Prime Coalition are great examples. And then I think the kind of work that we're talking about is, is what I hope will be a new piece of the puzzle for philanthropy.
Bill Loveless: When it comes to creating and using energy, is the U.S. still the global leader?
Arati Prabhakar: Well, we certainly are in terms of per capita use of energy. I mean, a lot of, solving climate is really easy if you don't need energy and if you don't need to eat, right? I mean, it's the fact that that cheap energy and abundant agriculture, fish and agriculture has fueled our growth and the progress of our society. That's what we're really wrestling with. And if we're a leader in all of those things, I think it's actually going to be important for the world that we become a leader as well in driving climate solutions.
Bill Loveless: You know, and over your career, you've worked with some fascinating people at startups and established companies, universities, government labs and nonprofits. You know, you've advanced science, brought some products to market and help demonstrate some powerful new technologies, who are some of the people that stand out in your mind, you know, I always look to people who are truly the pioneers, the leaders that we learn from, you know, who might be some of those people you think of?
Arati Prabhakar: You know, the people you get to work with doing this kind of thing, that really is the highlight. I mean, it's what makes it so much fun. And there's so many people I learned from and whom I admire. Well, I'll tell you, when I think about the people who have inspired me and have gotten that get my heart rate up when I think about what they're working on. Often, it has been people in my organization that we just get the sense that it's such a privilege to get to support them. A great example, when I arrived at DARPA, in 2012, I had a program manager who was, you'll love this, he was a geneticist, an MD and an Air Force Colonel. His focus was infectious disease, and he's in 2012, he said, we're going to have a pandemic that makes 1918 look like a walk in the park. All the conditions are right. And we don't know how to build vaccines and antibody treatments fast enough to really contain it or didn't deal with it.
And he started, you know, made a massive investment and he started a program to radically change how we respond to infectious disease. One of the first things he did was go find a little company in the Boston area called Moderna and fund them and persuade them to build a platform using their mRNA technology, a vaccine platform. And, my husband just got his second Moderna shot. And I still think about Dan, coming into my office to tell me about this crazy idea he had. Yeah, that's inspiring and getting to work for those kinds of people and enabling them is, what a privilege.
Bill Loveless: And that's the sort of things that when we talk about climate change, and how it may seem like a hopeless task to attend to it, that you hope you'll come across in the work you're doing now and work you're doing with others?
Arati Prabhakar: Absolutely. That's why that's why we're doing it.
Bill Loveless: Well, Arati as we're speaking as Women's History Month concludes, what advice would you have for girls and young women who are interested in science and technology and how do you think women fare today in those fields as compared to men?
Arati Prabhakar: Yeah, I think, everyone brings whoever they are, and whatever they are, whatever their passions are, and the advice I would give is, I’d give the same advice to anybody. I think for every one of us the two questions, right? Well, what do you really deeply care about? And then what can you contribute to it? And over a long period of time, I finally realized that the thing that drives me at every stage is I just want to, I want to work every day to make the future better than the present. That's all I really care about. And it's a long journey to find the places where you can make a contribution to the thing that you care about, but you know, find it and then and then sing your song. Bring what you can do these problems are vast and they're going to take science and engineering but they're going to take a lot of other kinds of talents as well so I think we just you know, you want to fix your north star and then just keep driving to it.
Bill Loveless: Sounds good well it's been an interesting discussion as well as a lot of fun to catch up with you again out the Arati Prabhakar. Thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Arati Prabhakar: It's a pleasure to catch up Bill, take care.
Bill Loveless: For more on Columbia Energy Exchange and The Center on Global Energy Policy find us on the web at energypolicy.columbia.edu and on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy. For Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We'll be back again next week with another conversation.