SXSW: How the State Department is working with start-ups, discovering new technology


During an event at SXSW, Rebecca Taylor walked through the programs the State Department uses to identify and work with innovative start-ups. (Larry W. Smith/EPA)

When you think of innovation and technology within the federal government, you may think of the National Science Foundation, NASA, maybe even the Defense Department.

The State Department? Not so much. But Rebecca Taylor, an esteemed entrepreneur, has worked to change that. She recently spent three years serving as a senior advisor inside the agency.

“When I arrived, I realized that there wasn’t a good way for a person inside the State Department to keep up with innovations being developed inside U.S. start-ups, or if they did know about them, they didn’t know how to work with them,” Taylor told a room of business people Tuesday at South by Southwest here in Austin. “It was a really big problem.”

One of the key challenges, Taylor said, was that the State Department could not react quickly enough to keep pace with high-growth start-ups that are constantly raising money, adding new products and tweaking their business models. Those companies “can’t wait two years for a line to show up in a budget and then compete for a contract,” said Taylor, who moved to D.C. from Austin, where she had started and advised several technology start-ups (she is now a partner at Shell Technology Ventures).

One by one, Taylor helped launch or expand a number of programs that the agency is now running, each aimed at identifying new opportunities to work with early-stage companies and unearth promising new technologies. She walked through five of the initiatives during her talk at South by Southwest.

Idea to Product Competition (I2P)

Through this program, the agency works with universities to hold competitions for students and professors who are creating technology that could help the State Department tackle any number of challenges around the world. I2P, Taylor said, is the agency’s primary tool for finding very early-stage companies or even entrepreneurs with only a concept or idea they want to pitch.

Innovation Arms Control Challenge (IACC)

Started two years ago, the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance now hosts this challenge annually to find start-ups that are building data-driven and mobile technology to help federal officials improve their arms control verification procedures. Every year, the agency awards up to $10,000 to the winning company and works to integrate the firm’s technology into its regulatory procedures.

LAUNCH

NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and sporting goods giant Nike teamed up several years ago to create LAUNCH, under which they strive to identify and support entrepreneurs who are tackling global sustainability challenges in areas like energy, health care and water treatment. The State Department provides technical assistance to companies brought into the program and connects them with experts around the world that are trying to solve the same problems.

“What’s so cool is that all four of these huge organizations discovered they had different but synergistic interests,” Taylor said. “It has been incredibly effective.”

Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI)

The Defense Department has run this program for more than a decade, in which it brings in venture capitalists from around the country, briefs them on the type of technology the agency needs, and then sends them back to their networks to find start-ups with those capabilities. The investors return several months later with their nominated start-ups, and the agency brings in some the firms to pitch their ideas and compete for contracts.

Taylor found out about the program and immediately launched a carbon copy inside the State Department, through which the department has now contracted about a dozen start-ups to incorporate their technology products, including new safety and security equipment for its embassies across the globe.

Startup America

Three years ago, the White House launched Startup America, a public-private partnership intended to connect early-stage companies across regions and offer low-cost support services to entrepreneurs. As part of that project, the administration set out to build an online tool that would connect Fortune 500 companies with start-ups that could fit into their supply chains.

Taylor approached the Startup America team, who agreed to erect a similar platform for the State Department that would let embassy officers around the world search for young companies that could provide the innovative products and services they need.

“So, the embassy in Zimbabwe can now describe the technology they are looking for in that country and find start-ups that have those capabilities,” Taylor said. In a sense, she added, “it’s like an eHarmony” for embassies and entrepreneurs.

To follow our ongoing coverage of start-ups, entrepreneurs and technology at South by Southwest 2014, click here.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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