CIA venture firm devises tech review strategy

In-Q-Tel anticipates better success at finding products to offer to the intelligence community now that Sept. 11 has given government a better understanding of the technologies needed to improve homeland security

In-Q-Tel

In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm, anticipates better success at finding products to offer to the intelligence community now that Sept. 11 has given government a better understanding of the technologies needed to improve homeland security, according to the firm's chief executive officer.

Since its 1999 launch, In-Q-Tel has partnered with vendors on more than 20 projects to create products for the intelligence community. At least 15 new products should come out of the proposals In-Q-Tel received after Sept. 11, Gilman Louie, the firm's president and CEO, said at the Federal Convention on Emerging Technologies, held in Las Vegas Jan. 7-9.

After being inundated by industry offerings in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, civilian agencies sent In-Q-Tel many of the more than 500 proposals that they could not evaluate, Louie said.

Typically, In-Q-Tel is lucky to have 1 percent of proposals every year turn into helpful products, but because this crop went through the filter of other agencies, the firm expects a success rate of 3 percent to 5 percent, Louie said.

In the months since the terrorist attacks, the government has realized what technologies it really needs, he said.

In-Q-Tel evaluates proposals based on a "wish list," or list of requirements, from the intelligence community. Most of the community's goals for new information technology products were set as far out as 2015, and although many technologies were necessary, they were not immediate concerns, Louie said. The events of Sept. 11 changed that.

"We had an IT failure — all of the systems that we put together with the best intentions weren't doing the job," he said. "We couldn't fuse the data."

The IT systems currently in place at the CIA and other agencies within the intelligence community don't allow users to quickly find or compare data, especially if the search terms aren't exact, Louie said. Because analysts must spend valuable time searching for information stored in many locations, they work less efficiently.

Sept. 11 shone a harsh light on this inefficient system when CIA employees at almost every level ended up printing stacks of paper and poring over them manually because it was faster than searching data stored in IT systems, Louie said.

Intelligence agencies now have a pressing need for a way to provide data to any authorized person from any secure application or device at any time, he said.

The solution is not just to come up with products to better search or categorize the information, but to find a way to separate the data from the delivery mechanism, Louie said. This is not the "sexiest" problem to solve — because it is infrastructure, not a flashy product — but without it, all the products are irrelevant, he said.

In fact, the CIA itself is tired of vendors approaching the agency with what the vendors insist is the "total solution," said Jim Simon, assistant director of central intelligence and the intelligence community coordinator for homeland security. The "total solution" doesn't exist, he said.

In-Q-Tel came to the convention — held with the 2002 International Consumer Electronics show, one of the largest technology expos in the country — in part to look at products aimed at nonfederal markets that the government could also use.

Science Applications International Corp., one of In-Q-Tel's partners — along with SRA International Inc. and Booz Allen Hamilton — does business with many sectors, and so far the partnership has been successful for the company, according to a spokeswoman.

In-Q-Tel actually expects products from more than just its new proposals, Louie said, because some projects languishing before Sept. 11 are now on a fast track to development. Some older proposals that had been filed under "maybe" are now being seen in a new light, particularly if they involve gleaning intelligence information from unstructured data, he said.

In-Q-Tel is sending proposals that do not fit into the intelligence mold to other agencies, including the Office of Homeland Security, according to Gayle von Eckartsberg, associate vice president for corporate communications at the firm.

Officials at the Homeland Security Office, who could not be reached, do not have In-Q-Tel's resources to evaluate proposals, von Eckartsberg said. So the firm is "in discussions" with officials to determine how best to deal with the ideas, she said.

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