You know you’ve been covering technology for a long time when your friends’ kids — whom you remember in diapers — start showing up at conferences you’re wandering through, panels you’re moderating. But that’s what happened to me the other day at a conference on collaboration in Washington. It was designed to match innovative companies with potential federal customers. For me, it was an unusual event if only because of the mix of casualness and neck- ties — which, by the way, does not correlate with age. I did run into some guys I’ve known since my days at Government Computer News in the early 1990s. We joked, this sure isn’t FOSE with the latest copiers on display. It was bracing to see so much earnest brainpower — on both the government and fledgling industry side — talking across traditional boundaries. And a jolting reminder at how much the economy has changed from when I used to cover industries like steel and engineered metal products. I’m not sure what innovation means exactly. But one of the government people had a pretty good, down-to- earth definition. Dan Doney, the chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it’s finding ways to deal with the new problems you have when the old tools don’t work. Or trying new tools on persistent problems. You can’t put it in a bottle. And you can’t conjure it up at will by shoving people into open workspaces. But you know it when you see it. Or when you know where to look. The government is learning where to look. That’s why you see so many agencies launching challenges and contests. They’re looking for ideas the bureaucracy can’t solve with the usual ways it does things. At collaboration, the Energy Department had a table lined with one-page brochures listing challenges it has open. It’s preparing to spend $1 million on prizes. There’s the Collegiate Wind Competition, for example. They’re looking for teams of students to design and test a marketable wind turbine. Reading the material, I sense a subtext in this contest. Namely, the current wind turbine industry has problems with reliability, cost and the fact that without the government forcing it, no sane utility would bother with them. Another DOE contest has to do with lighting. In conjunction with Ford Motor Company, one seeks ideas for new automotive lighting systems. Another, in partnership with RecoveryPark, is looking for ideas for more efficient agricultural lighting for greenhouses. I saw an impressive piece of unmanned aerial vehicle innovation. The problem with those whiny quadricopters is battery life. Flying a payload like a GoPro camera or something of similar weight, they just don’t go far enough. And the devices could be a lot more productive if they could operate in swarms. But operation doesn’t scale — one operator, one drone. That’s according to Brandon Borko and Christopher Vo. They look like my kids’ ages. They are my kids’ ages. But they’re the CEO and chief technologist, respectively, of a startup called Sentien Robotics. I couldn’t help but ask them how come they weren’t in school that day. But they’re both George Mason University engineering grads. They’ve developed software that can operate, they say, hundreds of drones autonomously, launching fresh machines as the batteries on flying ones fade. Their video showed a sort of drone rack concept, mounted on the back of an F-250. It launches charged drones while the expiring ones fly into a space on the rack. Imagine operating 100 drones with only your driver’s license. Could you have thought of this? I don’t know what the Sentien system costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than the $1 billion the Defense Department would spend to have a systems integrator do it. I spoke to one 20-something who says he started a company that creates branding narratives. I’m not sure what that even is. But it sounds like something a few government agencies could use. A young woman from BraveUX described this chic company’s approach to app development, which its website describes as “clever, clean, gutsy, art-meets- science, polished, original, avant garde, modern, smart, bold, simplified, definitely not boring, full-bodied, fun, delightful, original, stylish, refined & Brave.” Hardly something you’ll find on the website of the average federal contractor. Elephants also exhibited at the conference, hoping to show they, too, can innovate. Booz Allen Hamilton talked about its use of crowd-sourcing platforms like Innocentive and IdeaScale to help agencies get into the innovation groove. The event itself had one innovation you don’t see much in Washington. It ran on a Friday and Saturday. All those kids innovating don’t think in terms of a 9-5, Monday-Friday, work week. My entrée came from Jonathan Aberman, a Northern Virginia venture capitalist who specializes in national security market startups locally. I moderated a discussion with him and Doney, but it was on a Friday afternoon. Our theme was that technology innovators have avenues to get their ideas in front of government, even with the procurement process in place. And the neighbor’s kid? A shout-out to Ben Center, recent grad, now working as investor relations associate at Onevest.
Tom Temin is host of Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.