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IARPA Awards Draper Multi-Year $7.8 Million Contract to Improve Biodetection Security

Draper has been awarded a three-and-a-half-year $7.8 million contract by IARPA (The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, National Intelligence Directorate) as part of the FELIX Program to research and develop tools to enable better detection of engineered organisms.

New innovations in synthetic biology have the potential to enable technologies that range from lower cost, environmentally-friendly chemical synthesis, to the eradication of malaria and Lyme disease. However, as bioengineering becomes more prevalent, the risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of these technologies increases, with potential health, economic and national security consequences.

Draper’s FELIX effort, led by Principal Investigator Kirsty McFarland, Ph.D., aims to develop a suite of lab tools to improve and expedite detection of engineered organisms and overcome current limitations to biodetection. In describing a key challenge, McFarland said, “New ways to identify the presence of bioengineered organisms in the environment are needed, as today’s detection techniques have speed, cost and sensitivity limitations. Our Synthetic Biology Group leverages Draper’s molecular biology expertise to develop creative solutions to this challenging problem.”

The contract with IARPA adds to the Synthetic Biology group’s ongoing R&D programs that range from developing new technology for DNA synthesis and molecular information storage, to tools for bacterial detection and antibiotic susceptibility testing.

For execution of the FELIX effort the Synthetic Biology team will collaborate with other engineering disciplines at Draper for microfluidicsmicrofabrication, optics and materials science. Such cross-discipline collaborations bring a number of benefits to programs such as FELIX, according to Andrew Magyar, Ph.D., a co-investigator for the program. “One of the great things about Draper is how integrated our biology and engineering teams are,” Magyar said. “Together we can come up with really creative solutions that are not easily developed in institutions that focus on just biology or just engineering.”

Working with Draper on FELIX are Michael Springer, Ph.D., at Harvard University and Ahmad Khalil, Ph.D., at Boston University. Both bring expertise in the development of synthetic biological systems.

Draper’s FELIX contract is the result of close collaboration between the Synthetic Biology group and Draper’s Special Programs Office, where Associate Director Robert Larsen is leading a new biosecurity initiative. “At Draper, our world-class biology team works closely with our expert engineering staff, enabling the conception and realization of innovative solutions to the most challenging problems in biosecurity,” Larsen said.


At Draper, we believe exciting things happen when new capabilities are imagined and created. Whether formulating a concept and developing each component to achieve a field-ready prototype or combining existing technologies in new ways, Draper engineers apply multidisciplinary approaches that deliver new capabilities to customers. As a not-for-profit research and development company, Draper focuses on the design, development and deployment of advanced technological solutions for the world’s most challenging and important problems. We provide engineering solutions directly to government, industry and academia; work on teams as prime contractor or subcontractor; and participate as a collaborator in consortia. We provide unbiased assessments of technology or systems designed or recommended by other organizations—custom designed, as well as commercial-off-the-shelf.

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