Military must ‘pick some winners’ among startups

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The military needs to focus more on a few companies to nurture to take advantage of the much-needed talent technology startups have to offer, a top Air Force official said Saturday.

Speaking on a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Gen. CQ Brown said he recently visited Silicon Valley and met with multiple companies and venture capitalists. Although he did not identify specific firms, he said he “learned a lot about semiconductors and artificial intelligence last week.”

“What we have to do is actually pick some winners,” he said, pointing to rocket maker SpaceX as an example of an innovative company that has gained traction in the defense sector.

“How we align them and bring them forward — it’s going to take some nurturing,” Brown said of helping new tech companies move through the acquisition process. “It’s like hand-walking a staff package through the Pentagon and making sure it gets done.”

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Once successful, Brown added, the Army will develop “a way of doing things a little differently.”

Commercial technology firms are heavily involved in the annual Reagan Forum, but the event’s panelists typically represent large firms such as Microsoft or Google.

Indeed, speaking on the same panel, Karen Dahat, a former Booz Allen Hamilton executive who was recently tapped to run Google’s public sector business, said that given significant VC investment, now is the most fruitful time for innovative companies focused on aerospace and defense.

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“We need that capital to work for us,” she said, referring to the military. “Those companies couldn’t get to a scaled program within the department.”

Dahat argued that several key technologies should be selected and given to the military for testing.

Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Heidi Shew said a team overseen by the deputy defense secretary is working hard to address the “pain points” faced by small companies that want to work with the Pentagon.

She said she presented the deputy defense secretary with a collection of issues she heard during meetings with small companies.

‘It’s great,’ said Kathleen Hicks, the department’s No. 2 civilian. Let’s go fix this,'” and then brought in other Pentagon offices, including acquisition and sustainment, the Chief Information Office and the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, Shew said.

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Now, those offices deal with a variety of issues, from security clearance issues to labor challenges. Hicks holds monthly meetings about their progress, Shue said.

“The aim is to simplify our contract so that smaller companies can deliver very quickly, rather than taking several months,” she added. “We’re trying to deal with a lot of acquisition pain points.”

Marjorie Senser is the editor of Defense News. She was previously editor of Inside Defense. She has served as defense editor at Politico and a staff writer at The Washington Post, Carroll County Times, and Princeton Packet.


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