The goal is to absorb innovation that is happening outside of government-funded labs and reach out to organizations outside the Beltway. Defense contractors such as Lockheed are often criticized for falling behind West Coast firms when it comes to technology innovation.
“There’s a growing sense that [large defense contractors] are missing out on commercial innovation, and the pace of commercial innovation is accelerating,” said Chris Moran, executive director of Lockheed Martin Ventures.
Moran faces the daunting task of representing the world’s biggest defense contractor in a Silicon Valley tech scene where the work of military agencies is sometimes frowned upon. That cultural divide flared up last week when Google indicated it will back out of a Defense Department initiative called Project Maven, under which the Internet giant’s artificial intelligence was deployed to rapidly analyze massive quantities of drone footage.
“Silicon Valley is a bubble — its own ecosystem and environment,” said Moran, who worked for a Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor company before joining Lockheed.
Contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which operates a similar investment fund called HorizonX, are trying to bridge that cultural gap by approaching innovative start-ups outside the Washington region and investing in them, effectively buying a seat at the table.
Lockheed’s fund managers are not overly worried about extracting a profit from the companies they invest in. Rather, they are after advanced intellectual property that could reshape the U.S. military’s arsenal.
“The goal is to access technology, and the way we’re doing that is by making investments,” Moran said.
The fund has invested about $40 million in eight companies since 2016, spanning a striking range of technology areas.
Among the portfolio firms is IQ Analog, a San Diego-based semiconductor company that is working on ultrafast data converters. There’s nTopology, a New York-based start-up that makes software for 3-D-printed manufacturing systems. Another recent investment went to Cambridge, Mass.-based Humatics, which is working on navigation systems meant to help small drones safely navigate crowded cities. The company has invested in hardware-focused companies such as Ocean Aero, which is building robotic submarines that can spy on hostile maritime installations, defuse mines or carry a payload.
In some cases, Lockheed finds itself investing alongside more traditional technology funds and commercial organizations. It joined Softbank, a global technology fund operated by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, for example, when it invested in the artificial-intelligence-focused computer chip maker Mythic.
Lockheed has also been attuned to recent advances in driverless cars as it looks for ways to incorporate robotics into weapons development; the fund has made two undisclosed investments in detection systems for self-driving vehicles, which Moran said are “very closely aligned with the automobile industry.”
The company says it has seen an early success in Terran Orbital, which makes “nano-satellites” that are a fraction of the cost and size of the bus-size satellites Lockheed specializes in. Units of Terran Orbital’s design were later purchased by the U.S. government under one of Lockheed’s contracts, Moran said.
The fund has the added benefit of showing lawmakers and government contracting officers that Lockheed has been making good use of its savings under the recently passed Republican tax bill. Lockheed’s effective corporate tax rate fell by about 10 percent as a result of the law, chief financial officer Bruce Tanner said in a recent earnings call.
Defense contractors have been under pressure to prove they are using the recent tax windfall to invest in research and development as opposed to share buybacks and stock dividends.
After the tax legislation passed, a chorus of industry executives, including Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, said it would be a mistake for government contract officers — who negotiate prices with defense contractors — to recover some of the tax savings through lower prices. Executives from large contractors have argued that wider margins are desirable for taxpayers in the long run because they will encourage firms to invest in R&D.
Asked whether the company could have doubled the size of the fund without the tax savings, Moran said there were discussions about offsetting the fund’s operational expenses, but adding to the fund itself wasn’t on the table until after the tax bill was approved.