The Pentagon’s new innovation cell announced Wednesday it has spent $71 million on startups and established commercial technology companies in emerging technology fields such as cybersecurity, robotics and drone detection. Read more
Funding for the Pentagon’s new innovation cells will have their budget slashed by 75 percent until Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivers a report to Congress on the future of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). Read more
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced last week he will add the position of Chief Innovation Officer to the Defense Department as part of his larger initiative to get new technology companies working on defense projects. Read more
Defense Secretary Ash Carter returned to Silicon Valley last week to announce sweeping changes including the leadership to his project to inject commercial technology innovations to the military.
A prominent Washington D.C. think tank issued a report in April evaluating Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent push to increase the number of commercial technology companies outside the defense industrial base to start working with the military. Read more
“Hurry up and wait.” It’s a common refrain among troops and their families frustrated with the bureaucracy that can seep into everyday life in the military.
Waiting isn’t something that commercial tech firms are used to doing. Today, it is causing frustration among tech startups interested in working with the Pentagon as part of the latest defense innovation initiative by Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Read more
The Pentagon issued a proposal to Congress asking to stand up a pilot program to issue 2-year contracts ranging from $2 million to $5 million that would be set-aside for innovation companies that do not presently work with the Defense Department.
Recently, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to open offices in Silicon Valley to reach new sources of technology innovation. Entering the world of Uber-ization and disruption, they are attempting to rekindle their success in the last century tapping Silicon Valley know-how to improve space missions and computer hardware. Without question, re-energizing engagement between the national security agencies and our most talented technologists has never been as important. However, merely opening up an office in Silicon Valley does not address two important challenges that must be overcome for this effort to succeed.
This commentary was published in The Washington Post.
The first is to match up with the motivations of nontraditional innovators. Many have noted that Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs generally start companies for commercial reasons — to sell out to Google as soon as possible or to be the next “unicorn,” a start-up valued at $1 billion. For most Silicon Valley innovators, working with the government as a customer seems less interesting in comparison. Overcoming this cultural gulf and getting Silicon Valley innovators to engage with the national security agencies will neither be easy nor rapid, if it is achieved at all.
The second is challenge is operational. Nontraditional innovators like to work quickly – their mantra is speed to market, funding, failure and success. This means that to work with these people the national security agencies must change and adapt their approach to contracting, promoting opportunities and talent scouting to truly be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that holds so many nontraditional innovators. This requires a blending of arcane rules with new techniques to become more approachable and agile; it’s not disruption but informed iteration.
Merely opening an office in Silicon Valley will not overcome these challenges. National security agencies need an approach that combines a number of important attributes: (i) ready and willing nontraditional innovators, (ii) a broader community of experienced technology companies that have the experience and skills necessary to deliver a product or solution in compliance with the Federal Acquisition Rules, (iii) variations to contract rules to accommodate nontraditional innovators, particularly in emerging technologies and (iv) a consistent, persistent and national process for identifying and engaging with nontraditional innovators in the ways that they wish to be engaged.
To succeed in this new mission the national security agencies must fundamentally change how they approach working with nontraditional innovators. This is true regardless of the geography they target. However, the larger question is why run off to Silicon Valley when the conditions for success are more likely to be met in the greater Washington region.
This region has highly engaged innovators that are motivated to serve the national interest and public good. Compare, for example, the types of innovators that work with 1776 here in D.C. with the innovators that work with entrepreneurship group YCombinator in Silicon Valley. The differences are striking. Add to this regional organizations committed to national security innovation, an established ecosystem of businesses, talent and service providers that are comfortable with and excited about working with the national security agencies and the picture is complete. The greater Washington region has the raw material to support and successfully meet the challenges to finding and engaging nontraditional sources of innovation.
To not focus on this region for leadership in this effort will result in a missed opportunity for both the national interest and our region’s economy. The issue of bringing nontraditional innovators to national security is far too important. We need to get this right.
Jonathan Aberman is managing director and founder of Amplifier Ventures, an investment firm that focuses on emerging technologies. He is also the managing director and founder of Arlington-based TandemNSI, a program to promote greater connection between entrepreneurs and national security agencies.