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Name: Prabhakar, Arati
Current Position: Previous Director

Hoping to move beyond the conflict of interest controversy that torpedoed the tenure of outgoing director Regina Dugan, the Obama administration has named a new director for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dugan resigned in March over revelations that her family firm, RedXDefense, won $400,000 in Darpa contracts while Dugan was director—and while the company owed her about $250,000.


Dr. Arati Prabhakar, who starts her new position at Darpa on July 30, was born in 1959 in New Delhi, India. She came to the U.S. at the age of 3 with her mother, who was seeking a graduate degree in social work at the University of Chicago. When she was 7, the family moved to Lubbock, Texas, where she grew up. She earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering at nearby Texas Tech University in 1979, and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1980 and 1984, respectively. The first woman to win a Ph.D. in applied physics at Caltech, Prabhakar’s doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Investigation of Deep Level Defects in Semiconductor Material Systems.”


More interested in exploring the policy implications of science than engaging in research, Prabhakar went to Washington, DC, in 1984 on a Congressional fellowship with the Office of Technology Assessment, where she wrote on microelectronics research and development. She then served at DARPA from 1986 to 1993, first as a program manager and then as founding director of the Microelectronics Technology Office. In May 1993, at the age of 34, Prabhakar became director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency traditionally involved in defining technical standards, but which the Clinton administration wanted to use to encourage high-tech economic development.


Prabhakar left public service for the private sector in 1997 by joining Raychem, a publicly held specialty materials company, as senior vice president and chief technology officer. She was subsequently with Interval Research Corporation, a laboratory for consumer technology, as vice president and then president. In 2001, Prabhakar became a partner at U.S. Venture Partners (USVP), a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, California, where she worked with new high tech companies.


USVP was a primary investor in solar panel maker Solyndra, whose failure after receiving loan guarantees from the Obama Energy Department raised questions about the influence of prominent campaign contributors. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s “unclear whether Prabhakar was directly involved with the firm’s Solyndra stake,” although Wired magazine recently quoted an unnamed senior defense official saying that “Dr. Prabakhar…had no involvement in the federal loan guarantee for Solyndra and wasn’t involved in the restructuring of the loan.”


Prabhakar chairs the Efficiency and Renewables Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Energy, is a member of the National Academies Science Technology and Economic Policy board, a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board at UC Berkeley, and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She serves on the board of directors of SRI International, a nonprofit research institute, and either serves or has served on the boards of Kilopass Technology, Inc., SiBEAM, Inc., Lightspeed Logic, Inc., NanoSolar, Inc., Arradiance, Inc., Kleer Corporation, and Pivotal Systems Corp.


A finance industry Democrat, Prabhakar has made political contributions totaling $12,586 since 2003, about two-thirds of it ($8,636) to the National Venture Capital Association PAC, which funnels money to Democratic and Republican candidates about equally. Prabhakar also contributed $500 to Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (Ind.-Connecticut) Senate campaign in 2003, $1,000 to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run and $2,200 to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

-Matt Bewig


Darpa Gets a New Boss, and Solyndra Is in Her Past (by Noeah Shachtman, Wired)

Profile: Arati Prabhakar; She’s Not Just Setting Standards (by John Holusha, New York Times)

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