How new ideas are being welcomed in government contracting

While the federal government gets a reputation of sticking in its ways and slowing down the rush of innovation, the actual experience that government contractors have when it comes to interacting with new ideas can be quite different. To understand how the government at large is actually helping spur innovation in a wide range of fields, we spoke to Zhensen Huang, founder of Precise Software Solutions.

ABERMAN: Well, I know a bit about your products, but tell everybody else: what are you working on, and how did it come about?

HUANG: So, we have two products that have come off from an effort that’s very interesting, in a way, that we didn’t start to build products. We started by thinking how we can help college students to jumpstart their careers. So, we started this internship program, where our CTO has been driving innovation activities, and we’re looking for some interns to come in to help us. Then, we come up with two ideas, one is, it’s very difficult for a lot of people to track medications, and we come up with maybe a process to help people to do that.

And also, we are aware of a lot of adverse effects that we have access to. It’s publicly accessible, however, in general, citizens just aren’t aware of that. What happened is, we merged them together as we kind of built that with our interns’ help. And one of the ideas that we came up with is, while there’s all this machine learning capability that’s out there that’s newly being introduced, how can we use that to apply to data analytics, and even doing image recognition? So we started to incorporate all this, and we came up with a very cool product. We use Google’s machine learning API, and when we demoed this to Google, they were amazed. So, that’s one of the products.

ABERMAN: And what does it do for consumers? It lets consumers manage their prescriptions, or see what it is they’re taking, what the pill is? I mean, what is it doing?

HUANG: So, that’s one aspect of that. And you know, like I said, we didn’t start this as a whole product development, so we didn’t start it with a typical cycle of, you know, understanding the market. It was really a very noble effort to help students jumpstart their career, so the features are evolving. One is to help people to track medication.

The other is, really, there’s a lot of medical information is available out there that people are not aware of. For example, if you’re taking a medication, would you like to know about adverse effect about this? Any social media feeds about, you know, medications you’re taking, and interactions between two different medicines you’re taking? So, we have a lot of the information that’s available. Consumers just don’t know that.

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ABERMAN: Because, and this is where I think the overlap with the government becomes so important, because your company is rapidly growing already, working as a consultant and a partner with the federal agencies involved in health care. And so, to my mind, Zhensen, this is very much a story that’s similar to what I’ve heard of more and more frequently, which is that, as the government looks for insight, and help, into solving big challenges, it’s creating the possibility to create products that are useful directly to consumers and businesses.

Do you think that people who are not part of the government contract industry really understand how entrepreneurial government contractors really are, and how big an opportunity this is?

HUANG: Well, there is a lot of potential. That’s why you and I talked about how I feel this region can contribute so much into innovation and entrepreneurship. I mean, we have a lot of people doing the same business as we have, and we’ve enjoyed a lot of growth, and there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation like this. If you look at us, we have the brainpower that’s needed in terms of technology. So, technology itself is not necessarily always enough.

You have to apply technology to certain issues. And, we have all these government agencies to try to support the citizens within the country. There’s a huge opportunity for us to say, how can we apply the technology to the missions the government is carrying out, and help people improve in a way that’s not available today. There’s huge opportunity for that.

ABERMAN: So, what would you like to see our community doing, specifically to help companies like yours diversify away from the federal customer?

HUANG: So, I think the community needs to really get together to do a few things. Number one is really to make awareness. For example, a few weeks ago I was at UMBC, giving a speech in terms of entrepreneurship, and I was surprised by how many people showed up. You know, the organizer originally only booked a small room. We had to move at the last minute, about 150 to 200 people showed up, and we talked about our experience. I can feel in the room that people just don’t know where to start. People are afraid of this journey.

I mean, people are excited about this, but there’s not enough support or knowledge to help them to get started. So, that’s number one. Number two, I feel that, besides that awareness, we need to create a culture that allows people to fail, because quite honestly, going down this entrepreneurship role is not risk-free. It’s actually quite risky. How do we allow people to say, you know what, if I fail, it’s okay? There’s more opportunity. I think we need to create that environment.

ABERMAN: Does the government have a role in this, do you think?

HUANG: I think, actually, government is doing a great job helping small businesses. For example, we’re a part of the SBA 8a program, allowing us to have access to certain set-aside work that’s really for a minority-owned business, which is great. Now in part of this work, you can be entrepreneurship, you can be innovative as you’re supporting the government, but I would encourage people to think outside of the box.

Not just with the work that you do for the government, but also learning the knowledge that you gain from supporting the government, and trying to look for opportunities to apply technology to help the government to think outside of the scope that you are getting contract to support for. Because a lot of times, the government will give you a contract at work on a predefined area. However, if you bring ideas to government, they would be open to it.

ABERMAN: That’s been my experience too. Thanks a lot for taking the time to join us today, Zhensen. It was great to have your perspective and we wish you the best of luck with growing Precise Software Solutions.

HUANG: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

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