I wonder if the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental will survive into the next administration. More precisely, will it have delivered enough tangible value that the next Secretary of Defense will consider it worthwhile?
The Defense Department has established two DIUxes after the initial beachhead in Mountain View, California. Now there’s one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, as of this week, Austin, Texas. The second two cities make sense. Believe it or not, when Silicon Valley was in fact mostly the home of silicon companies like Intel and National Semiconductor, Boston-Cambridge spawned tremendous advances in mini computers. And guided missiles. Think outfits like Draper Labs and Arthur D. Little started there. After all, it did have MIT and Harvard. Austin incubated the super-disruptive industry of cheap PCs — Dell.
What do the DIUXes want?
In terms of technology, DIUx sits next to the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. They’re not contracting for research and development or wild-eyed experiments like DARPA. Nor do they chase new products from old companies. DIUx aims at a couple of things at once: rapid acquisition, new companies doing new products, and new approaches to existing problems. Secretary Ashton Carter is following the administration shibboleth that you go to The Valley and places like it to render tangible the illusive idea of innovation. Out there, you can also get great sushi.
In terms of how DoD buys, DUIx sits between the ordinary routine of ordnance resupply and the dazzling complexity of developing and buying a new bomber. No incubator company, capital factory or dorm room entrepreneur is working on an alternative tank. What they might well be capable of developing, though, is a system of sensors, actuators and software to enable the Army to drive tanks remotely or autonomously.
What do the companies DIUx is trying to interest want? Revenue. I believe they believe it’s cool to help the warfighting mission. But no one starts a company without visions of Bill Gates in the back of their heads. Finally in mid September, DoD said DIUx had $65 million in contracts it was about to award.
So DIUx puts out highly abbreviated solicitations to interested companies and requests short proposals in response. The current one asks for a cyber incident response toolkit.
DIUx feels a little like DoD panning for diamonds, but with gold-plated tools.
Outside of the innovation-centric, workaday DoD world, managers often tell would-be contractors, the best way to convince me to buy is to explain how your product or service can help my mission. I’ve heard it many, many times and so have you. Maybe you’ve said it yourself.
Helping the mission can take a simple form. Maybe a functionally equivalent piece of equipment or supply that’s less expensive than what you’re buying now. Or maybe a performance improvement for the same price.
In the case of DIUx, helping the mission takes on a broader meaning. Maybe it requires all of new and separate apparatus to break free of decades of tradition and also to look cool to the code jockeys and entrepreneurs Carter thinks can deliver salvation. It’s not a sure thing yet.