Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Hagel went to California to announce the Pentagon’s new focus on getting innovation from nontraditional sources. This is a big deal for the both the nation and the Washington, D.C. region. It signals an opportunity for our region’s start-ups and innovators to provide their highly skilled expertise in government technology in new ways. However, it also signals and reinforces a major challenge – how to connect these “Venus and Mars” worlds.
The issue of how to make these connections cannot be understated. The national security establishment must learn how to “speak like an entrepreneur” to attract nontraditional innovators. This requires new pathways for engagement – in contracting, marketing, persistence, and mentorship – things that are regularly provided in the private sector start-up ecosystem, but are not generally associated with working with the government. It also requires a new mindset – a willingness to acquire technology based on “field needs” rather than top-down specifications. In short, to engage with nontraditional sources, the national security agencies must become nontraditional themselves.
The good news is that there are many good models available to national security agencies that are consistent with current acquisition and contracting rules and will allow for immediate nontraditional performer engagement. The opportunity before us is now a challenge of effective execution.
For the Washington, D.C. region this shift in focus on where the Pentagon acquires innovation is very significant. Behind the focus on sources of nontraditional innovation, the secretary of defense is implicitly acknowledging something that has been known by our national security personnel for a while: the nature of national security has changed. The threats are more diverse, more and more technology based, and in many instances very cost effective. They are not threats that are likely to be met through current national security acquisition practices. This will result in a greater and greater reliance on our own rapid innovation, which in our economy happens in the nongovernment world of start-up formation and individual innovation.
It should be lost on no one in the Washington, D.C. region that when Secretary of Defense Hagel determined to announce the Pentagon’s new focus on nontraditional innovators he went to California. The perception that Silicon Valley is the home and place of nontraditional innovation is deeply held by many. The reality, of course, is that there are many places where innovation occurs, and that the Washington, D.C. region has tremendous innovation resources available to it. However, it must marshal these resources promptly.
A failure to create pathways for nontraditional innovations – product oriented development by small teams motived by entrepreneurship and desire to help the national interest – will result in a near term and accelerating degradation of our national security. A failure of the Washington, D.C. region to work with the national security agencies to lead this change, will result in the region becoming less relevant to national security. For both these reasons, we must act now to adopt new models and build bridges towards nontraditional innovation. Connecting these resources has never been more important.
Jonathan Aberman is managing director and founder of Amplifier Ventures, a investment firm that focuses on emerging technologies. He is also the managing director and founder of Arlington-based Tandem NSI, a program to promote greater connection between entrepreneurs and national security agencies.