Defense Innovation Unit Tasked to Circumvent Traditional Acquisition System
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has tasked his Silicon Valley innovation unit with the difficult job of finding a way around current acquisition red tape, according to the agency's director.
George Duchak, the director of the Defense Innovation Unit — Experimental (DIUx), which has been on the ground in Silicon Valley since August, said he attended a roundtable with Carter and 20 or so "movers and shakers" from the tech industry. During the discussion, the newly appointed director was told that his agency needs to find a way to "hot wire" the present acquisition system to bring more innovation to the Defense Department.
"To me that almost sounds like an admission that business as usual isn't working," said Duchak Oct. 28 during a conference held by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Virginia. "Our current system lacks the agility and speed to provide technologies that we need for a world that's changing much faster than" the acquisition process. How the agency will achieve this goal is yet to be seen.
Duchak described DIUx as the "Match.com" for the Defense Department.
"Our mission is not to be an investment company like In-Q-Tel. We have no money for investing," he said. "Our job is to … figure out what are the cool technologies, what are the nascent or emerging technologies that help solve real, vexing DoD problems."
DoD is especially interested in attracting nontraditional companies that have never worked with the Pentagon, Duchak said.
The agency's reception in Silicon Valley has been warm so far, but the organization is still in the "honeymoon" phase. Companies will not be willing to work with the Defense Department unless they believe it will boost their bottom line, he noted.
"Make no mistake about it. They're patriots, but they're patriots where their interests align with making money," Duchak said. "They will be receptive when the portfolio of products, the technologies that they offer, have a strong alignment with what DoD needs, and they can make some money on it."
Both large and small companies will work with the department once they realize the benefits that can be gained by having the government as a partner, he noted. Since the Sony cyber hack, there has been growing interest in building such partnerships, especially from large companies, Duchak said. "I think they see that working with the U.S. government has some benefits [as they seek] to protect some of the things that they're doing."
On the responses from specific tech giants, he said: "Google's been very receptive. Apple, not so much."
The agency is still in the startup phase and working on solidifying its operating process and engagement model, Duchak said. The secretary of defense has assured the organization that it is "allowed to fail" as it explores the best options for bringing new technology and innovation to the department," he added. “The key word in DIUx is experiment. We are, as Secretary Carter calls us, his startup.”
The agency is already beginning to engage with companies out West, connecting them with defense laboratories, and acquisition and user organizations. "We make those connections literally every day with technology that we see," he said. "Where we're short on collecting a metric is the 'what's next'?"
After the connection is made, the agency still hasn't found a way to effectively track whether the user organization decided to fund or move forward with the innovation.
DIUx can make all the connections it wants, but it doesn't necessarily mean the idea will ultimately get funded, Duchak said. "You can lead that horse to the water, but you can't make him drink."