Government high-risk innovation unit picks exec from US counterpart as first leader

Peter Highnam announced as inaugural chief executive of Aria

Credit: Arek Socha from Pixabay 

The British-born deputy director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been hired as the chief executive of the UK’s fledgling Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has announced.

Peter Highnam will take up his post at the UK’s new “high-risk, high reward” agency – which has been inspired by Darpa and its predecessor the US Advanced Research Projects Agency – in early May. BEIS said the appointment will be for a fixed term of five years.

Arpa was influential in creating transformational technologies such as the internet and GPS, and the establishment of a UK version was one of the core ambitions in government for Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng called Highnam’s appointment as Aria’s first chief executive officer “a major triumph” for the UK.

“His expert direction will lead the agency’s formation, ensuring the funding of high-risk programmes that will continue to push the boundaries of science and technology,” Kwarteng said.

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“Under Dr Highnam’s leadership, Aria will ensure the benefits of research and development will be felt in our society and economy over the course of generations, and that the technologies, discoveries, products, and ideas the agency invests in are supported to create the industries of tomorrow.”

Highnam notched up a BSc in computer science from the University of Manchester and an MSc in mathematical logic and the foundations of mathematics from the University of Bristol before moving to study in the United States, where he gained a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.

He became Darpa deputy director in 2018 and has served as acting director on two occasions. He has previously held positions as the director of research at the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and as director of the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

From 1999 to 2003, Highnam was a Darpa programme manager working in electronic warfare and airborne communications.

BEIS began the search for a chief exec to lead Aria last June. It did not specify a salary range, and said only that remuneration “will reflect the seniority of the role and will depend on skills and experience”.

A BEIS spokesperson declined to give details of Highnam’s salary package, saying instead that it was commensurate with the challenges and demands placed upon the role.

The department said it had “sought an exemption from public sector pay rules for the role”.

However, it added that salary bands for Aria’s senior leadership team would be made public in the agency’s annual report and accounts.

A separate exercise is now under way to recruit a chair for Aria.

Sam Trendall

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