ARPA-H director shares vision for new agency in visit to Stanford Medicine

Renee Wegrzyn, who leads the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, discussed the agency’s plan to accelerate better health outcomes for everyone.

- By Andrew Padgett

Lloyd Minor and Renee Wegrzyn speak at a StanfordMed LIVE event Jan. 26.
Andrew Padgett

Despite political divides over science and medicine that have erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still widespread consensus on one critical problem, according to Renee Wegrzyn, PhD, inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.

“What everybody agrees on, no matter what the party is, is it takes too long to have health solutions,” Wegrzyn said during a Jan. 26 visit to the Stanford School of Medicine. “Everybody wants a faster response.”

U.S. President Joe Biden appointed Wegrzyn in October 2022 to lead the newly established ARPA-H. The mission of the agency, under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health, is to “accelerate better health outcomes for everyone,” Wegrzyn said in a StanfordMed LIVE discussion with Stanford School of Medicine dean Lloyd Minor, MD.

Wegrzyn noted the agency has the power to rapidly drive research and scale solutions for a wide range of global health challenges, from cancer prevention and treatment to health care access, equity and quality.

ARPA-H is modeled after similar agencies that advance innovation in their sectors, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is known for contributing to achievements such as the internet, GPS and even Moderna’s vaccine for COVID-19. Wegrzyn served in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office from 2016 to 2020 as a program manager — a crucial, term-limited role responsible for developing, funding and overseeing a large-scale research project.

Now, it’s up to Wegrzyn to hire her own team of program managers who will tackle some of the most pressing threats to human health.

The agency’s “superpower”

The expertise and passion that program managers will bring to solving a health problem for as many people as possible “is really our superpower at ARPA-H,” Wegrzyn said.

Wegrzyn emphasized that those selected to be program managers will need to be comfortable taking big risks. Each manager will be responsible for directing tens of millions of federal dollars over three to six years to bring their revolutionary idea to fruition. And they will need to effectively galvanize project collaborators in health care, industry and academia.

Scientists and innovators at all career stages are eligible to apply for a program manager role and submit a concept for consideration. In addition to outlining potential benefits, costs and risks, applicants are asked to explain how their health solution will be accessible to diverse populations — and how they will address any misperception and misuse of the solution. 

Minor encouraged Stanford Medicine faculty to apply for program manager roles. If they’re selected, he said, they can take a leave of absence for their government service.

Perhaps most exciting about the work of program managers, Wegrzyn said, is the opportunity to “tackle hard problems no one else will.”

Defining success

With ARPA-H’s billions in Congressional funding and broad mandate to solve intractable health challenges, several audience members asked Wegrzyn what success might look like for the nascent agency.

In addition to accelerating breakthroughs in disease prevention and health care delivery, “We want to create tools and products that people want to use,” Wegrzyn said. “We want it to be so obvious to the rest of the world why ARPA-H is here. … So that’ll look like success.”

“And paradoxically,” she added, “success should also look like failure.” If the agency doesn’t experience failure, she argues, it may not be taking big enough risks.

Another key indicator of success for ARPA-H will be in its diversity — in the problems it solves, in the communities it serves and in the program managers it hires. Spreading the word to people around the world, including those in underrepresented communities, will be pivotal.

“We really need to get out there so that when somebody hears ‘program manager,’ it actually means something to them,” Wegrzyn said. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”

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