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The Department of Homeland Security wants to commercialize technologies developed in federal laboratories to expand the selection of companies and applications in its industrial base, especially in areas like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
In an attempt to get out in front of the commercial marketplace, DHS Science and Technology Directorate is overseeing a new series of competitions between startup teams. Last week marked the end of the inaugural “Homeland Security Startup Studio.”
The program, which began in January, saw 10 teams form to develop start-up companies pitching technologies with a homeland security bent. DHS started out by scouting more than 450 technologies from federal labs and university partners before narrowing it down to 10 technologies that formed the basis for the competing teams’ pitches. During the culminating “Converge” event last week, five finalist teams competed for two $1,500 prizes.
Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, the senior official performing the duties of the under secretary for science and technology, said the initiative is helping DHS “drive innovation and influence the marketplace for DHS-relevant technologies.”
“The benefits of moving research from the lab to the front lines are tangible and will help the department bridge the gap between the research environment and the rapid innovation cycles of the marketplace,” Mitchell said during a keynote address at the event. “This partnership will enable researchers to identify new delivery pathways for their technologies. It will also help the department expand its industrial base, which is essential for protecting our way of life.”
DHS’ efforts to wade into the commercial startup market are part of a larger trend across government where agencies are trying to work more closely with technology startups funded by venture capital in places like Silicon Valley.
“We realize more public-private collaboration is needed to carry out DHS missions, and ensure security operators have the right tools and capabilities to prevent, respond to and recover from all disasters,” Mitchell said. “There used to be a day when the federal government led the space in innovation — that has long since passed.”
The Startup Studio is just one new initiative among several innovation programs at the DHS S&T directorate, according to Megan Mahle, director of industry partnerships at the directorate. DHS also works with the startup community through its Silicon Valley Innovation Program, where it takes existing commercial technologies and tweak them for homeland security missions.
The Small Business Innovation Research program is also an important part of the directorate’s innovation efforts. The next step for many of the Startup Studio finalists, Mahle said, is SBIR funding through DHS or another agency.
“There’s a lot of crossover, a lot of networking, a lot of ways to continue to take the work that’s done in the Startup Studio and move it along into another program at S&T or another federal agency partner to ensure that this is just the beginning,” Mahle said. “While it was the end of the culminating event for the Startup Studio, it really is just the beginning of these companies moving forward.”
At the Converge event, the audience picked the two winners. Charisma Cyber, an offensive cyber company pitching a machine learning technology that can scan networks for vulnerabilities, took home the most votes. Coming in second was Hawk N.Q.R. Detection System, which pitched an explosive detection product that uses Nuclear Quadrupole Resonance.
But DHS will keep in contact with all five of the finalists, according to Mahle.
“We’re definitely invested in their success,” Mahle. “The teams are made up of a diverse set of inventors and entrepreneurs. They have a lot of impressive experience and exciting ideas. They’re getting ready to move their technologies to the market, and they’re certainly people that we want to continue to engage with.”
DHS is already seeking applicants for the 2022 Startup Studio and looking for further ideas to advance how it spins federally funded technologies from the lab into viable commercial start-ups, Mahle said.
“We are really focused on our own internal technologies, so the technologies that are coming out of DHS laboratories, we want to make sure we highlight those,” she said. “But we really plan to cast the net as wide as possible, again, for the ‘22 cohort.”