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Can DoD regain the technological edge?

Today's Defense Department is engaged in conflicts that range in domain, location, type and intensity, whether it's boots on the ground in the Middle East fighting the Islamic State or countering cyber adversaries. As leaders look to future missions, many – including the military's chief – hope to exploit leading technological innovation that has slipped away from the U.S. military.

Among Defense Secretary Ash Carter's consistent priorities is technological and workforce innovation, so much so that he earlier this year launched the Defense Innovation Unit in Silicon Valley in a big to bring some of the tech sector's agility and ingenuity into the military. The DIUx, as it's known, was announced in April, with many meetings – and, ostensibly, exchanges of ideas – between industry leaders and Pentagon officials taking place in the intervening months.

"When I started out in this business…all the technology of consequence, most of it, originated in the United States. And a great deal of it originated with the government. Now, neither of those is true anymore," Carter said Dec. 1 at an appearance at Harvard University. "We need to manage our workforce in defense the way thoughtful companies do today. We're not a company, we'll never be. We're a profession of arms, it's different. But that doesn't mean we can't learn."

That seems to be the goal for initiatives like the Centers for Science, Technology and Engineering Partnership – designed "to enhance [DoD] laboratories with innovative academic and industry partners in research and development activities" – which was just established in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The 2016 NDAA also includes lab modernization programs, microlabs in working in concert with the Energy Department on matters related to national security and an emphasis on developing DoD's scientific and technical workforce.

There's also a requirement to work with the intelligence community to "jointly develop and implement a space science and technology strategy on a biennial basis.

If these efforts were as easy as just following the orders of legislative line items, the U.S. government, including the military, probably wouldn't be lagging behind other countries in science and technology. The new initiatives are a promising start, but they need momentum. One program aimed at that problem is I-Corps, a Silicon Valley initiative that was adopted and expanded by the National Science Foundation and is undergoing implementation across government agencies, including DoD and the IC.

I-Corps features "a rigorous entrepreneurship training program...for NSF-funded scientists and engineers, pairing them with business mentors for an intensive curriculum focused on discovering a truly demand-driven path from their lab work to a marketable product," according to a White House fact sheet.

"I think at the highest level, everybody understands our country is facing continuous disruption by adversaries who are using asymmetric warfare to negate 75 years of U.S. military dominance…our adversaries are moving both asymmetrically and with speed, therefore our own encounter is to innovate at faster speeds," said Steve Blank, the original creator behind I-Corps at Stanford University around 2011. "Historically, DoD and the IC have innovated in times of crisis, and reverted to bureaucracy in times of peacetime. What Silicon Valley has figured out is how to innovate without stopping, without defaulting to bureaucracy."

That's what government leaders hope I-Corps can do at organizations like the National Security Agency, where the White House in August announced officials will create an IC-specific version of the I-Corps curriculum, run NSA teams through the modified course and expand training to at least three other IC partners. The NSA declined to discuss their involvement with I-Corps.

There's also an I-Corps-based pilot program under way between DoD and the NSF capitalizing on Pentagon research and grant programs such as the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship.

"The pilot will help bridge the gap between basic research innovations funded by DoD and the commercialization of new products by providing entrepreneurial training to participants, thereby helping bring non-traditional suppliers to the defense marketplace," the White House fact sheet stated.

But beyond the pilot programs and initiatives, there's a cultural element that Blank said he hopes I-Corps and DoD's partnership with Silicon Valley can start to instill inside the Beltway. That means figuring out how and where Silicon Valley-borne practices are appropriate in the government and making it easy for workers to transition between government and industry, bringing with them their expertise and capital.

"What we have here in Silicon Valley is private capital surrounding universities and companies. There is an ecosystem of people who have big companies, they do startups, they go after the big companies to get involved," Blank said. "They buy these startups, and there is a ton of private capital – and not only capital meaning dollars, but there is a whole set of mentors, investors and venture capitalists with decades of experience so they help these companies transition."

That idea is one Carter spoke to at Harvard, calling for alternatives to traditional military service and "on-ramps" and "off-ramps" that more easily offer opportunities for a wider array people and skills.

There's one other piece of I-Corps that Blank said is key to bringing Silicon Valley into DoD, perhaps above all else, but it could be one of the toughest: inculcating a willingness to accept and learn from failure.

"Everybody talks about the Holy Grail, which is a search for the next offset strategy," Blank said. "The reality is…the next offset strategy is not another set of technology, it is about Americans' ability to innovate at speed and understand that now failure is part of the innovation process."

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