Homeland Security Pursues Startups for Breakthrough Technologies

Reginald Brothers, DHS’s Under Secretary for Science and Technology, headlines a panel discussion about government innovation at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. (Photo by Michael Hoffman)
Reginald Brothers, DHS’s Under Secretary for Science and Technology, headlines a panel discussion about government innovation at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. (Photo by Michael Hoffman)

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Department of Homeland Security's top technology leader is serious about figuring out how to connect entrepreneurs and startups to government problems and mold the acquisition process to get funding to them faster.

Dr. Reginald Brothers, DHS's under secretary for science and technology, traveled to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival here this week to meet those startups and talk about how his agency wants to work with them to outfit his agency's first responders with top-line technologies.

Brothers acknowledged that his agency's acquisition process often takes too long, limiting the possibility for many startups to work with the government. These early-stage companies don't have the time or manpower to dedicate to an extensive proposal process that can take more than a year to go through without knowing if it will result in funding.

Thus, the acquisition team at DHS has worked to introduce new contract vehicles to get funding into the hands of startups faster. Brothers said his team has worked with a legal team to see if they could create a process to offer funding in under three months. The answer was yes, he explained to the crowds here, where the uniform of the day is T-shirts and jeans.

And the crowds did turn out. Many wondered if conference goers would show up for a government panel headlined by Brothers and a program manager with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The panel started at 9:30 a.m. on the last day of a conference where parties stretch well past midnight. But the room was packed for the panel titled "Become The Next Tony Stark," with plenty of questions about how the entrepreneurs and researchers in attendance could tackle some of Homeland Security's problems.

DHS has not gotten as much attention as the Pentagon for its efforts to reach out to smaller companies outside the typical defense industrial base. Much like the DoD, DHS opened an office and established a team in Silicon Valley to make new connections inside the technology hot bed.

In Austin, Brothers asked how to define the Homeland Security industrial base. Industrial titans like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing make up the defense base. Brothers told the crowds at SXSW that entrepreneurs and startups make up his agency's industrial base.

Brothers understands the power of defense acquisition. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for research before taking the assignment to lead Homeland Security's Science and Technology directorate. But he also knows some of its faults.

In order to get money in the hands of startups faster, DHS equipped its Silicon Valley office with a contract vehicle that can fund these companies in 30 days. These are not necessarily large contracts -- most have a ceiling of $200,000.

Currently, DHS officials have an estimated $20 million to spend on these micro-contracts over the next five years. DHS is using this contract vehicle to target innovation companies in these fields: Internet of Things security (IoTSec), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) Security, aviation security, border security, biological threat defense, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and support to first responders.

Last month, DHS's Silicon Valley Office issued its first contract as part of this program to Pulzze Systems, a Santa Clara-based startup, "to advance detection capability and security monitoring of networked systems, collectively known as the Internet of Things."

DHS's pursuit of innovation isn't limited to California, as evidenced by Brothers' trip to Austin. The agency's Science & Technology directorate will pursue technology across a broad audience, including hubs in a variety of cities like Boston, Austin, Pittsburgh, DHS officials said.

"The only way we can get these kind of capabilities is if we reach out to everyone," Brothers said. "There's a lot of incredible technology out there and we're working toward reaching as much of it as possible."

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.

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