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Paths to making a difference in government - Arun Majumdar - EY - United States

Paths to making a difference

Arun Majumdar

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We have a sense of urgency. We are, in fact, building the plane while we are flying it.

EY - Arun Majumdar

Dr. Majumdar was nominated by President Obama to serve as the first Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) in September 2009 and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2009.

The challenge

The challenge was clear: to launch a new organization, develop program areas, make awards, provide technical oversight to awardees and demonstrate results in the creation of transformational energy technologies.

The unique mandate to ARPA-E is to support energy technologies that would fundamentally transform how the nation uses energy. The agency was created to make revolutionary improvements in energy, not evolutionary improvements.

The goal of ARPA-E as described by Majumdar in the agency's 2010 Annual Report is to "make clean energy technologies cheaper than traditional approaches so that they can scale without subsidies and enable sustainable businesses to grow."

Responding to the challenge

Majumdar faced three distinct tasks during his first two years at ARPA-E:

  • Focus externally to form new relationships crucial to the success of the agency
  • Focus internally on creating a new government organization
  • Launch the right projects and start demonstrating results

"During my first days, I reached out to key people in the Department of Energy. It was a new agency and I needed to reach out. I put together an advisory committee of notable individuals in the field to get their feedback," said Majumdar.

In addition to the Department of Energy, he also reached out to people in Office of Management and Budget, Congress, experts at universities and other people working in the field.

Equally challenging was the internal task of creating a new organization. Majumdar is very aware of the opportunities inherent in creating a totally new organization.

"We came in with a clean slate," said Majumdar. "There was no 30-year history to overcome. We have a sense of urgency. We are, in fact, building the plane while we are flying it."

After hiring the right people, Majumdar worked to create a culture in which they could flourish and create the operating style of ARPA-E in developing program areas and selecting projects.

"Our model is to give people white space and let them pitch an idea. We have good exchanges when we bring people together," he said.

In undertaking the third key task of picking the right set of projects, Majumdar said, "I think we are looking at the right kinds of technology. We are imagining new ways to approach energy. I think we have done very well."

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