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An illustration depicting Renee Wegrzyn. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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DARPA changed technology. Now Renee Wegrzyn wants to bring the same innovation to medicine.

Wegrzyn is the first head of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which aims to generate game-changing advances in medicine.

Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

The way we’ll know whether Renee Wegrzyn can be successful in her new job as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) is if she is allowed to fail.

ARPA-H is a new federal agency focused on biomedical innovation that was made in the image of one of the most secretly successful government organizations in US history: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Officially the R&D arm for the US military, DARPA is a unique fusion of government, academic, and industry brainpower, meant to do nothing less than invent the future. Which it has done — beyond plenty of military hardware, like the Predator drone, DARPA has helped seed a range of modern innovations that have little to do with warfare, from GPS to the internet to Moderna’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.

All those smarts and a multi-billion-dollar budget go a long way, but what makes DARPA so successful is a willingness to take major risks that may well never pay off — something rarely seen in government bureaucracies. That’s the kind of willingness that ARPA-H — which President Biden set up this year with a budget of $1 billion — must have to succeed.

It helps that Wegrzyn, an applied biologist with experience in cutting-edge biotechnology, knows DARPA from the inside out. She worked there for more than four years, where she was part of its inaugural fellowship class of the emerging leaders in biosecurity initiative. After DARPA, she moved to the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks, where she became head of innovation at the spinoff Concentric by Gingko, building out the startup’s efforts on biosecurity and advanced diagnostics.

Biosecurity matters to Wegrzyn. As gene editing and writing become easier and easier, synthetic biology may be following the path of computer programming, where it “wasn’t until about 20 years later that the vulnerabilities posed by cyber threats were really recognized,” she told Inside Precision Medicine. If we’re going to protect ourselves against pathogens both natural and engineered — and do so with as little death and social disruption as possible — we need new tools that can passively monitor emerging infectious diseases and new weapons even more effective than the mRNA vaccines that helped curb Covid.

Wegrzyn’s job will be shaping ARPA-H into a force that can do just that. It won’t be easy. As public health expert Ezekiel Emanuel tweeted after Wegrzyn’s appointment, ARPA-H needs to “prioritize health over medicine.” That means taking smart risks in a public health environment that has grown increasingly cautious and ineffective, bringing DARPA’s spirit to a field where the human consequences of failure can be far greater than they are in other technological areas. Wegrzyn will need to fail to succeed, but given what’s at stake, she can’t fail that much.