Defense

Reservists form 'connective tissue' between DIUX and Silicon Valley

Wikimedia image: Googleplex and the Pentagon.

With all the talk of a cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, military reservists with feet in both camps might be the key to closer collaboration, said Raj Shah, an Air Force reservist and senior director of strategy at Palo Alto Networks.

Reservists who work in Silicon Valley and understand the entrepreneurial culture there could be the "connective tissue" between tech startups and the Defense Department, Shah said Nov. 3 at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington.

Shah is a member of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Pentagon's nascent outreach office in Silicon Valley, which has been dubbed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's startup. Reservists are a key ingredient to DIUX's success, according to Shah.

"There's a strong and growing number of reservists who want to be involved with this," he added.

For example, reservists could take the lead in making sure that DIUX-hosted events are attracting relevant and appropriate venture capitalists, said Shah, who has piloted F-16s. He also cast DOD's challenge in courting entrepreneurs as partly one of presentation.

"There is a Snowden hangover of fear and mistrust," he said, referring to revelations of government surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that chilled relations between the federal government and tech firms. "I think that's all the more reason why, instead of being something [tech firms] read in the papers, they can actually interact with individuals" from the Pentagon via DIUX.

One barrier to DOD's success in reaching beyond its traditional contracting base is the often cumbersome government acquisition process, according to some observers. Shah said that when he founded Morta Security, which was later acquired by Palo Alto Networks, the firm purposely did not pursue government contracts because the long acquisition cycles were incompatible with startups.

During a panel discussion that followed Shah's remarks, Eastern Foundry Managing Partner Geoff Orazem said DOD officials would do well to more clearly broadcast the myriad opportunities for doing business with the department. DOD is running some of the biggest health care and accounting systems in the world, which are ripe opportunities for companies that are doing work in those fields, said Orazem, an Iraq War veteran.

The Pentagon and those supporting it "need to be better about articulating this vast array of just basic business function-based technology that there's a real demand for," he added.

Yanev Suissa, a venture capitalist and former investment officer at the Energy Department, said the true barometer for DIUX's success will be if it can drive lessons from the startup community to the defense contracting officers.

"I think DIUX will fall flat on its face if it doesn't get the day-to-day people and the business units…actively involved in the outreach to innovation," he said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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