I have been saying for a number of years that our national security establishment needs access to entrepreneurs and garage inventors because we as a nation need their agility and new sources of innovation. This is a viewpoint that a growing number of people within the national security establishment have taken up.
Recent acts of terror in Paris and other parts of the world have only accentuated this view. We are constantly reminded that we face national security challenges from small, distributed and agile teams who are using technology against us in unanticipated ways.
We as a country need to respond with technological approaches that are similarly agile and creative. In significant ways, our national security agencies’ existing mechanisms for obtaining innovation inhibit the attraction of new and agile sources of innovation.
However, there are programmatic approaches that can break this mold. A particularly promising example, the Robotics Fast Track Program was launched earlier this year by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and focuses on finding new innovations from previously untapped resources for research and development.
The program uses existing contracting rules to connect government with start-up entrepreneurs and garage inventors. It dramatically cuts down on paperwork and the delay that inhibits many innovators from working with the government, but it still maintains the accountability and protections that government spending requires. And it provides emerging innovators with two things most essential to those aiming to launch new technology businesses: legitimization of an idea and approach and the seed capital to make it happen.
The Robotics Fast Track program is a great example of what can happen when national security agencies are willing to adapt to the times and change the rules of engagement. By giving emerging innovators what they most need in a form that they can ingest, the national security establishment gets what it needs – access to new technologies from agile and previously untapped sources.
My job at TandemNSI is to be a connector, and we have seen first-hand how effective this robotics research program has been at attracting new innovators; they bring fresh ideas and viewpoints to our national security agencies. Over time, programs like this will help working with the government lose its reputation as being plodding and time-consuming. As grants are awarded from this and similar programs, we will see ancillary economic benefits such as helping start-up entrepreneurs build prototypes for commercial businesses. This win/win is attractive for start-up entrepreneurs – working with the government not only to serve the national interest, but also their businesses’ interests.
This affects us all. We should encourage more efforts like the Robotic Fast Track Program because it (i) is good for the country, since it surfaces new sources of innovation from agile sources (ii) fuels start-up entrepreneurs looking for seed capital to start new technology businesses in areas with high potential for job and wealth creation and (iii) shows the world that the best defense is a good offense when it comes to fighting terrorism.
Around the world, small groups of terrorists have proven that they can strategize, mobilize, and attack effectively. We in this country have the wherewithal to outsmart those who want to do us harm. When it comes to our national defense, we have to overcome our tradition of heavy procedure and protocol in setting up new programs. We must be able to work well as a team, with our most agile of resources, and not be our own worst enemy.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.