NIMA tries venture capital route

To take advantage of the best emerging technologies the private sector has to offer — and the entrepreneurial spirit of venture capital funds — the National Imagery and Mapping Agency recently awarded a pair of contracts through the National Technology Alliance.

The first contract, a five-year deal worth up to $200 million, was awarded Feb. 18 to Rosettex Technology and Ventures Group, a joint venture formed by Sarnoff Corp. and SRI International. The contractor will focus on three areas that represent critical technology for the intelligence and defense communities:

* Imagery, geographic information systems and cartography.

* Digital processing, analysis and management.

* Digital technology infrastructure.

The second contract was awarded March 15 to the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Technology Alliance, a group representing 14 organizations and led by 3M. It will provide "best-of-class" commercial technology to the government in such areas as telecommunications, emergency preparedness and crisis management.

The alliance will focus on the defense needs of many agencies, including the FBI, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An agency group will also advise the companies on how to make their solutions work for multiple agencies.

That new government/commercial partnership will help NIMA and other agencies meet challenges in the future, said Joanne Isham, NIMA's deputy director.

NIMA is the executive agent for the National Technology Alliance, which was established in 1987 to advance commercial and dual-use technology development to meet national security and defense needs.

NTA finds commercial solutions that address government technology shortfalls or seeks modifications to commercial technologies for government use, so that the government does not have to create one-of-a-kind solutions and incur development costs, said Colby Harmon, technology assessment and strategic planning lead for NTA.

The NTA program relies on independent teams of government and business leaders to evaluate agencies' technology needs and suggest solutions. For the two contracts, teams "will go to the government sites to determine what the technology shortfalls are and what would be a good match with commercial off-the-shelf technologies [and] use market research to leverage the off-the-shelf" selections, Harmon said. For example, the Rosettex team will identify a need and write a proposal to develop a technology to meet that requirement, Harmon said. A member of the Rosettex team will be selected to work on the technology or the task will be subcontracted to another vendor.

Rosettex team members will be drawn from the group's 64 partners, which include ERDAS Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers and Princeton University.

There will always be team members working on assessing and developing technologies, Harmon said, adding that the group expects to get five tasks under way by early May.

Rosettex seeks to help the defense and intelligence communities capitalize on emerging commercial technologies, which they sometimes miss out on due to their lengthy budget cycles and aversion to risk, said Mark Lister, managing director of Rosettex.

The group will invest profits from the NTA contract into its new venture fund, which will support innovative technologies that meet government needs, Lister said. Advisers to the fund include Gilman Louie, president and chief executive officer of In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm.

Over time, Rosettex officials hope to establish a dialogue between venture capital firms and government agencies.

Venture capitalists like to see their investments come to fruition within three to five years, a time period that coincides with the Defense Department's budget planning cycle, Lister said. "That will give the government folks the knowledge of emerging technologies so they can proactively plan for [them]."

At the request of the House Appropriations Committee, Business Executives for National Security, an organization composed of senior business executives from across the country, assessed In-Q-Tel's strategy, structure, processes, technologies and legal foundation. The report concluded that In-Q-Tel needed to address some management concerns but was off to a favorable start, which bodes well for the Rosettex fund.

Government officials are increasingly aware that there are "opportunities to solve many of the [information technology] challenges they face" by using venture capital business models, according to Mike Doubleday, a spokesman for the business group.

DOD's widely publicized broad agency announcement last October seeking new technology and e-government initiatives from the public also illustrated that new way of thinking, he added.

"It's recognition that the old model doesn't always work to capture the kinds of technologies needed for the challenges faced in the new environment," he said. "There are a lot of challenges in the whole process of using off-the-shelf and dual-use technologies in the intelligence environment but that's not to say it can't be done."

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