DoD R&D: Connecting Innovation Hubs


This week, SRI kicked off the first in a series of discussions with key research and technology leaders in federal government agencies, Congress and the private sector, exploring the best ways of identifying and nurturing new innovations and technologies that can help solve some of government’s most difficult challenges. Tuesday’s meeting focused on connecting US government research infrastructure to the multiple vibrant innovation ecosystems in the US. Future SRI panels will foster conversations on cyber security, the technology development to enable an aging workforce, and the confluence of bioscience, robotics and nanotechnology, among others. SRI panels strive to connect U.S. innovation hubs, including Silicon Valley, where SRI has its roots, to government policy makers to allow the latter to collaborate in developing the best solutions for our biggest challenges.

SRI’s round-table included four panelists to lead the discussion and 30 invited guests who could each offer their own perspectives. The panelists included Dr. Melissa Flagg, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research, Eric Chen, the founder of UJ Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture fund, Jetta Wong, who leads the Office of Technology Transitions at U.S. Department of Energy, and Anish Goel, professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The discussion also included representatives from other U.S government R&D agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation.  Also attending were stakeholders from academia and the venture capital community.

Eric Chen, successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of seed fund OVO Ventures, kicked off the discussion. As the one outsider on the panel, he had a perspective somewhat removed from those who served at high levels of the Federal government. He sees the government in its research role as a source of deal flow for his fund. As he explained to the session, firms like his are always on the look-out for talented entrepreneurs inside the government agencies, who often leave the government in order to build and implement the ideas they had at their agencies.

Chen also pointed out that government, like the agricultural sector, suffers from the length of time of the research cycle. In agriculture, farmers always need to assess results over at least two growing seasons (that is, years!) to decide whether a new system is working. That’s simply too long for investors, and is a large part of why investors stay away from that market. Government agencies also take too long to assess and invest in new technologies that carry some risk.

Dr. Melissa Flagg, who directs research for the Pentagon, described what her office was most trying to identify: Great ideas that are robust and can give us an advantage over time. Many technology solutions, she explained, offer only a short-term advantage against adversaries. She needs innovation that can’t be overcome quickly.

“We have a scale issue that is unique—it can’t just be a basket of good ideas, but ideas that can give us this advantage over time,” she told the attendees. “We must be accountable for the safety of the men and women in uniform, and that’s different form the commercial sector.”

Both Chen and Flagg noted that only a few of the many thousands of ideas will make for a successful solution and can be commercialized. “Bad ideas, even mediocre ideas, need to die somewhere along the way,” Flagg said. “We need to make sure that the best ideas, the right ideas, make it through.”

The discussion identified a number of opportunities for better collaboration and connection between government and private sector technology innovations.  However, the panel did uncover some critical needs to address the disparities between the fast-paced market driven incentives of “Silicon Valley” start-ups, and the deliberate requirements of security, energy and basic science.  The discussion identified the need for more opportunities for rapid prototyping and field testing of new technologies and for methods to bring outside technology development into the complex government tech acquisition process.  The discussion identified places like SRI and other trusted non-profits could expand their roles as intermediaries and developers that can foster two-way tech transition from government IP to commercial start-up and from private sector innovation to government prototype.

SRI plays a unique role in bringing together the innovation hubs and the Federal agencies. As one of the nation’s premiere independent research and development non-profit organizations, our role is to identity new and emerging innovation and technology that can be applied to the needs of government agencies as well as the private sector. Once we have identified those innovations, we also help transition them to the commercial sector for more broad use when appropriate. Finally, our roots in Silicon Valley give us unique access to the innovation culture there and other emerging hubs, and allow us to apply that to the needs of our government customers.

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