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ARPA-H director, visiting Cambridge hub, sees the agency spawning health care ‘moon shots’

Renee Wegrzyn is ‘ready to be surprised’ by future innovations

Renee Wegrzyn, the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — As the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health opened its hub in Kendall Square on Thursday, the head of the new federal agency said she was confident it will spawn transformative “moon shots” to cure diseases and improve health — even if it’s too soon to say exactly what they might be.

Renee Wegrzyn, the inaugural director of ARPA-H, likened her agency’s dynamic nature — and the unpredictable course of its big-swing programs — to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which famously developed the precursor to the internet and other breakthrough discoveries over many decades.

When DARPA was launched in 1958, “I’m pretty sure no one asked [President Dwight] Eisenhower when are you going to develop the internet or stealth technology or miniaturized GPS,” said Wegrzyn, who worked as a DARPA adviser and program manager. “I’m ready to be surprised by what our innovation is. ... We’re hoping to be ushering in technologies that people haven’t seen before.”

Those technologies could range from self-healing bone and cartilage cells to a holistic approach to removing tumors while protecting healthy tissue. The agency may also invest in solving problems in health care, such as finding better ways to protect patient data in hospital systems and safeguard medical devices from ransomware attacks.

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Wegrzyn’s visit to Massachusetts was something of a homecoming. An applied biologist and expert in synthetic and engineered biology, she spent three years as vice president of business development for the Boston biotech Ginkgo Bioworks before being tapped to lead ARPA-H.

The agency’s local office is on the third floor of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a high-tech and life sciences incubator. It will initially employ 20 to 25 people, including workers for a contractor, VentureWell.

Known as the agency’s “investor catalyst hub,” the office aims to spur technological breakthroughs by teaming federal research programs with private investment. One big difference from DARPA, which turns over its promising discoveries to the Pentagon for advance funding, ARPA-H — with a budget of $2.5 billion through 2025 — will rely on financing by private investors to bring technologies to market, she said.

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“If we show that something is possible, it’s ready to leave ARPA-H,” said Wegrzyn. “We’re looking for creative ways to find follow-on investors that can participate in ARPA-H projects once they leave the agency.”

She said ARPA-H may start new companies to commercialize its technology. “The investor catalyst hub is also here to help us understand the marketplace and then help us even to staff new companies as we launch them and get access to incubator space,” she said.

ARPA-H has already put out half a dozen requests for proposals on big ideas generated by its program managers, such as treating osteoarthritis by finding a way for joints to heal themselves and developing precision surgical interventions that combine imaging and visualization technology to assure surgeons all tumors are removed.

Wegrzyn said the agency plans to fill a gap in existing life sciences funding. Many private investors will only bankroll proven technology, she said, while the National Institutes of Health — which funds basic research at Massachusetts hospitals — often avoids the riskiest approaches.

“We’re really here to fund the work that others in the ecosystem can’t because it’s so high risk,” Wegrzyn said. “When a [venture investor] says to a company, ‘come back to me when you’ve proved X,’ we want to fund X. ... We are willing to take these big bets and see if it’s possible.”

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For the new agency, whose mission is “to accelerate better health outcomes,” making new technologies affordable and broadly accessible are key goals, Wegrzyn said. ARPA-H, which is based in Washington, D.C., has set up a second hub in Dallas to focus on patient experience.

Not every program ARPA-H invests in will succeed, Wegrzyn acknowledged. “If we get to a certain point and we’re not showing it, and it looks like we have to break the laws of physics, then we’ll stop,” she said. “We have to fail fast, too.”

Then, in a nod to the history of innovation in the Boston area, she added in jest, “This might be the city to do it if we’re going to break the laws of physics.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.