A scant thirteen years after the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, this agency has finally discovered the magical place known as Silicon Valley and has arrived with buckets of cash in the hopes of pumping some tech know-how into its efforts to keep America safe.
Over the last year Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has doubled down on efforts to tap into the innovation of the tech community's top brains. This past September, the DHS's science and technology R&D arm and the Center for Innovative Technology teamed up to launch the Emerge program, a startup accelerator focused on companies that make wearable and Internet of Things technology for first responders with an inaugural class of 17 startups. It recruited investors to buy into the accelerator companies and lined up buyers in two corporations that were already selling products to relevant law enforcement agencies so that the accelerator graduates would have a ready market for their wares.
DHS will soon open a satellite office in Silicon Valley. Brothers says the department is trying to learn from the "creative class" and to make it easier for entrepreneurs to pitch relevant products to federal agencies, something that not many startups have been eager to tackle, due to complicated and cumbersome federal procurement and supplier rules.
"In order for us to get the best solutions for our operators, whether it is first responders, border patrol, secret service, TSA, we have to reach out to everyone and part of that science and technology ecosystem is the venture-backed startup community," Brothers says.
To jump start the accelerator program, DHS funded two accelerators already in existence, the Dallas-based Tech Wildcatters and Chicago-based TechNexus, to mentor the first batch of combined 17 companies.
Admittedly, "this isn't something the government has [ever] done," Brothers says. But the first class of the program was a success: Eight companies in the program received $100,000 each. Accelerator alumni have sold over $6 million in product and services to the two buyers that the DHS brought in as part of the Emerge program. They include BearTek Gloves, which makes Bluetooth-enabled snow, driving, and work gloves that allow wearers to remotely control smartphones and other devices; LanguageMAPS, which makes a smartphone app that helps first responders translate non-English-speaking patients during emergencies; and MindTalk Technology, which makes WiFi-connected mouth guards embedded with bone conduction hardware that lets first responders, soldiers or athletes communicate with their superiors or coaches, and sends signals about injuries. (A consumer version lets you listen to music.)
The next phase of Emerge is in-field testing to see if the technology can stand up to the tough conditions of daily use by fire fighters and law enforcement agencies. If everything goes well, the technologies will be adopted by first responders around the country and a second class will start in the second quarter of 2016.
The DHS lacks its own dedicated industrial machine like the Department of Defense has been able to build over the last 60 years. Brothers says the Emerge program and other initiatives have tapped the larger startup community in hopes to make DHS' own "industrial base" of nimble inventors.
The accelerator is only one of the DHS' new programs. Other include panel discussions and meet-ups about big problems and topics like the lack of security in Internet of Things devices. They're also holding cash prize contests, including a $100,000 prize for the best ideas for the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility being built in Kansas, and $290,000 for an environmentally-friendly buoy mooring system concept.
Brothers says these programs were made to create a financial incentive for entrepreneurs to work with DHS. One of the biggest differences in the government world and the entrepreneur world, Brothers says, is the time it takes to fund an idea. While big corporations can wait years for a government contract to turn into revenue, startups cannot afford to wait that long. Brothers says that he knew if he wanted to attract entrepreneurs, he had to make sure an entrepreneur's great idea could be funded within a few months. In creating these various programs, Brothers side-stepped the lengthy government contractor and federal grant process.
"What I am learning is how to communicate our challenges and come up with ways for smart people to communicate with us, and figure out ways to get funding to them in a relevant timeframe," he says.
Brothers spent time meeting with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Austin before he launched the programs last year and says his ultimate goal is to make DHS more accessible to startups and for startups to help solve important security problems.
"The point is to go to Silicon Valley, the Austins, the Bostons, the Chicagos and Seattles, the centers of innovation in our country, as well as international partners, and talk about the things we find challenging and find the newest technologies we need to stock on our shelf to protect the homeland," Brothers tells Inc.