Dr. Emondi on Types of Labs and Successful Research

Dr. Al Emondi, an experienced organizational and technology leader, joined NTT Research in March 2022 as Head of Partner Strategy. In that role, Dr. Emondi became part of the NTT Research leadership advisory team, with responsibilities that include growth and research partner opportunities, strategic project and program support, partner enablement and value, and research investments. Dr. Emondi, who assumed this role on a contract basis, is also President and CEO of Piontier, LLC. He received his M.S. in Electrical Engineering and Ph.D. in neuroscience from Syracuse University and was previously Program Manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), CTO of the U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center (NAVWAR) Atlantic, and Communications Engineer and Program Manager in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). For more on his background and understanding of how research organizations differ and succeed, please read on.

With your extensive experience across several government research organizations, how do you see the work at government research labs differing from academia? 

Department of Defense (DoD) research labs focus on the military mission of national security. AFRL and NAVWAR are service laboratories made up of scientists and engineers responsible for ensuring technologies are developed, tested, demonstrated, and ultimately fielded to support the national security needs of the Air Force and Navy, respectively. The facilities and experimental testbeds in the laboratory structure are designed to facilitate technology development and evaluation for military use. Furthermore, a large portion of the research I was involved in was funded with what we refer to as 6.3 funds. In the government, this has a specific meaning – the funds are to be used for “advanced technology development.” If you are familiar with Technical Readiness Levels, this implies research targeted at TRLs 5-6. At this technology level, basic or fundamental research is largely already completed, prototypes are developed, and testing of the technology is conducted in simulated or operational environments. These simulations and testbeds are used to evaluate a critical decision point: Does the technology demonstration move forward into a formal acquisition strategy? Is more R&D required? Or pivot from the technology completely?

While there are certainly many exceptions, much of the academic research represents earlier phases of technology development that are more aligned to basic and applied research. At these early stages of discovery, the final end-use and application of the research may not yet be fully defined. Therefore, in my mind, differences between DoD research labs and academia are different attitudes toward risk tolerance, the proportion of fundamental research to advanced technology development, and ultimately the mission of the organization.

 Did your work at those agencies involve much collaboration with external partners, such as private contractors or other third parties?

For AFRL and NAVWAR, the decision to collaborate with external partners or do the research in-house depends on capability and resource availability within the lab. Collaborations were used where it made sense to leverage specialized labs or expertise that didn’t exist within the government laboratory structure. DARPA, on the other hand, is not a research lab but rather a funding agency with the mission to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. For the Agency to succeed in this mission, it is critical to establish research agreements with academia and industry to perform the research and build the prototypes required for demonstrating breakthrough capabilities.

Do you see an organization like NTT Research playing a similar role? Do you think it has any advantages compared to related efforts in government, academics, or more conventional corporate R&D?

I see NTT Research as a hybrid model explicitly set up to achieve its mission – Upgrade Reality. As an organization focused on fundamental research, NTTRI has established critical research partnerships that are aligned with its internal research work. In some cases, NTT researchers are even embedded within the collaborators’ research organizations. This approach is unique and provides a rich environment for discovery and invention. Another significant capability within the NTTRI model is the ability to move quickly. The ability to change and adjust course quickly is not generally found within government research organizations.

You’ve been involved in several hundred research initiatives. Could you share any high-level lessons on what makes for a good program? Does the Hand Proprioception and Touch (HAPTIX) program, which you discussed in this recent Voices from DARPA podcast, rank up there among the successes?

I have always felt there are two critical components to a successful research program: expertise of the research team and strong leadership support. Some of the most successful R&D programs I have funded and been involved with had these two aspects in common. Regarding research teams, often, team members from multiple disciplines are beneficial. Researchers from various backgrounds approach problems from different perspectives and can create novel solutions. Often, I found this orthogonal thinking can be just what you need to look at a problem differently. Additionally, if there is an opportunity to make significant, impactful change, the dedication and drive of the team as a whole increase significantly. And this is where the leadership aspect comes into play. Robust and impactful research teams backed by supportive leadership are hard to beat. Ensuring adequate resources and well-aligned expectations with those resources is just part of the leadership’s responsibilities. Leadership also has a role in maintaining an environment where ideation from all team members is expected and valued. Additionally, effective leadership provides vital technical evangelism for the research work by clearly stating the value of the research effort and highlighting key accomplishments and discoveries.

The HAPTIX program discussed in my recent DARPA podcast certainly captures what I am referring to regarding high-performing research teams and leadership responsibility. The ability to create technical solutions capable of restoring movement and sensory feedback for amputees is undoubtedly an example of seizing an opportunity to make meaningful, impactful change for those who have lost a limb. Multiple research teams from many different backgrounds were all part of the solution space for the program. After several years of hard work, we obtained several FDA approvals, several human subject implants, and validation of varying approaches to create a high degree of freedom of movement in prosthetic limbs and the ability to restore the sense of touch through sensors embedded in the prosthetic. As the DARPA program manager of HAPTIX, part of my job was to defend the program’s investments and make sure program successes were highlighted. The DARPA podcast is just one example of the technical evangelism I am referring to.

On a personal note, how did you get involved in sailing? Any favorite regatta(s)?

Always loved being on or near the water and always had boats in the family. Moved to Charleston, S.C. in 2000, and decided to buy an old sailboat to refurbish. That is where I learned much of the maintenance and sailing skills I still use today on my boats. That was 22 years ago, and many boats later, I combined my sailing and motor boating interests. I recently bought a cruising yacht and sold my sailboat, but I often try to crew in a regatta where time and opportunity align. I have been fortunate to race in regattas in Key West, Annapolis, and Charleston. Some of my favorite races are the overnight ocean races – no land in sight, sailing under moonlight – some of the most quiet, relaxing times I have had on the water.