DHS Opens Silicon Valley Office in Search of Innovation (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

The Department of Homeland Security in January opened an office in the heart of Silicon Valley seeking innovation at companies that don’t normally do business with the federal government.

The initiative follows in the footsteps of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental office, which is also hoping to tap into new ideas found in a region known as the heart of the U.S. information technology industry.

“This is our way of trying to get their ideas into the government, get their capabilities and use them so we can perform our mission better,” said Melissa Ho, managing director of the department’s Silicon Valley office, which is under the Science and Technology Directorate.

Ho will be a one-person operation for the time being.

“We felt that Silicon Valley, as well as a number of the innovation corridors around the country and around the world, have great ideas to share that we haven’t been tapping into very well. We haven’t been getting their interest,” Ho told National Defense.

There has been some coordination between herself and the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental office. “We have talked with them and are sharing notes: who they have been talking to; who we have been talking to. We are definitely coordinating on that front,” Ho said.

To kick off the initiative, the Science and Technology Directorate in December released its first solicitation targeted at Silicon Valley firms. It focuses on cyber security and the “Internet of Things (IoT).”

As devices other than computers are becoming connected to the Internet — such as cars, thermostats and industrial equipment — there have been dire warnings from experts that security is not being “baked into” the systems from the beginning. For example, hackers have been able to take control of cars that were put on the road with software vulnerabilities.

“There are devices out there that are network-enabled, that affect consumers as well as the government, pipelines and other critical infrastructure end users,” Ho said.

The solicitation was aimed at “non-traditional performers such as technology startups,” the announcement read. It “marks an important milestone in how we do business at S&T,” DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Reginald Brothers said in a statement. “We want to remove the barriers that limit the nation’s innovators from considering us as a technology partner. The [solicitation] will help engage some of the best minds on the most difficult homeland security problems.”

Ho said the process for selecting ideas is being made as simple as possible and forgoes the traditional DHS and Defense Department acquisition processes.

Applicants are being asked to fill out a seven-page document and then send it as an attachment to an email address. There won’t be any need to navigate a government portal. If the office is interested in the idea, it will call in the company for a 15-minute pitch. They will receive an answer as to whether they can proceed with their proposal on the spot, she said.

“We are definitely trying to mirror the way that Silicon Valley and the other investment communities handle things, which is why we have an application process rather than a white paper followed by lengthy evaluation panels. After the 15-minute pitch, we make a decision right there,” Ho said.

The office is hoping to shrink the time needed — from responding to the solicitation to the first award — down to four months, “which is a lot quicker I think, than most traditional contractors are used to,” she said.

As for the first solicitation, DHS is seeking technology to detect, authenticate and update devices that are part of critical infrastructure systems.

Detecting is the ability to know what Internet-of-Things devices and components are connected to a given network or system. Authenticating is the ability to verify the provenance of their components and prevent and detect spoofing. And programs must include the ability to securely maintain and update these components.

“The diverse and widely distributed nature of IoT and the numerous ways in which devices and networks can connect with IoT systems significantly complicates the security challenge,” the solicitation stated. “The first and most far reaching complication is that IoT relies on the Internet to connect and control widely distributed devices.”

The office has up to $20 million to spend on this and other programs, Ho said. As for the Internet-of-Things solicitation, participants can receive $50,000 to $200,000 for each of four development phases.

After a company is chosen, it will have three to six months in the first phase to demonstrate its product. There will then be a “demo day” where DHS personnel are on hand to make evaluations.

The office’s intentions are to have DHS personnel there who will be using the products during both the selection and testing processes so they are invested in the technology’s development. Following the demo day, companies will have an opportunity to refine their prototype and get it ready for pilot programs.

If agents or personnel working for one of DHS’ 22 components have been part of the evaluation and refinement process, they will want the end product, Ho said. It is hoped that this will avoid the so-called Valley of Death, when products are developed but they ultimately find no long-term customers and never make it out of the prototype phase or laboratories.

“We are trying to streamline the acquisition process so by the time [DHS components] are ready to buy the [product], they have all the necessary documentation so they can buy in bulk,” she said.

John Verrico, Science and Technology Directorate spokesman, said: “The DHS components may not be the end user of what comes out of this. It may very well be industry ultimately becoming the end user, or first responders be the end users. The market is much broader than just DHS.”

The next solicitation will focus less on information technology and more on the needs of Secret Service officers, Ho said.

“They have got a number of different missions — investigation, protection — so our goal is to be able to articulate to the community what their days look like and what their challenges are, and if an innovator has an idea that they think can meet that need, then we are open to an application against those challenges,” Ho said.

The office will most likely host an industry day in the Valley, where Secret Service program managers can spell out their needs to the community, she said. Ho declined to say what will come after the Secret Service solicitation, but said there will be more at the end of the second quarter of fiscal year 2016. It’s the office’s intention to be a benefit for all of the DHS components, she said.

Most of what it is interested in will be commercial off-the shelf technology, she added.

“Our expectations are that these are going to be commercial products and we’re just tailoring the technology so the government can use it, too. We’re buying off the shelf. We’re just trying to shape that shelf a little,” Ho said.

A second goal of the office will be to recruit executives who are willing to come to Washington, D.C. to work at the department. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, when announcing the Silicon Valley initiative at the 2015 RSA Conference in San Francisco, said: “We want to convince some of the talented workforce here in Silicon Valley to come to Washington. … This will build capacity on all fronts. I hope some of you listening will consider a tour of service for your country.”

Verrico said this “tour of duty” would probably be part of the DHS loaned executive program. It allows industry experts to come work for the government for terms of up to 120 days. The volunteers are paid by their private sector employers, who give them a leave of absence to work in the government. The S&T Directorate has not yet participated in this, and there isn’t one on the table for cyber yet.

Meanwhile, being on the ground in Silicon Valley is important, Ho said.

“I think it sends a good message. We are meeting people where they are. And that’s important and particularly in a community that isn’t necessarily interested in getting business with the government. We’re showing that we are interested in them,” she said.

And the concept may expand, she added. There are innovation hubs all over the nation.

“Silicon Valley is one innovation hub, but we are looking to see how this works out and to see if there are other areas around the country where it might be useful to replicate this. There is certainly a lot of innovation going on in Austin, Boston, Denver, Chicago, etc.,” Ho said.

Clarification: story clarifies a quote by Ho on the nature of evaluation panels.

Photo: Thinkstock

Topics: Homeland Security, Science and Engineering Technology

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