DIUx leader has hopes for innovation organization’s survival past January

The Defense Department's innovation hub chief is optimistic about his organization's chances during the presidential transition.

The leader of the Defense Department’s nascent innovation hub is optimistic his organization can survive the upcoming change in presidential administration, despite critiques from Republicans in Congress.

Many inside the defense community have wondered what will happen to Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s pet project, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), now that a Republican administration is taking over the White House and Republicans will have majorities in both houses of Congress.

“We know that innovation is going to be critical to our successes and critical to stay ahead of our near peer adversaries and the speed of change and the speed of being able to try new things is what will underpin that. We’ve been at DIUx 2.0 for six months, we think we are beginning to bear the initial fruits of the labor of the team and the partnerships that the services had with us,” Raj Shah, leader of DIUx said Nov. 16 at the Federal Times Cybercon in Washington. “My hope and sense is that innovation is not a partisan issue and so having the opportunity to continue to new things, make mistakes, understand what doesn’t work as well is what will be critical to us in a rapidly changing threat environment.

While President-Elect Donald Trump’s transition team hasn’t made any comment on DIUx, Republicans in Congress have made their voice heard.

During a Nov. 16 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said DIUx would be one of the hard debates those in power need to face as they prepare for the next administration. Turner declined to go into further detail.

The 2017 defense authorization bill takes a shot at the organization as well.

“The committee is concerned that outreach is proceeding without sufficient attention being paid to breaking down the barriers that have traditionally prevented nontraditional contractors from supporting defense needs, like lengthy contracting processes and the inability to transition technologies,” the bill states.

It goes on to say DIUx may have insufficient oversight and coordination with laboratories and engineering centers.

Shah said he’s not letting those criticisms keep him down.

“I would remind everyone we are six months old, there are still a lot of lessons we are learning. … We are always open to finding better ways of doing things. I think if you look at the 12 projects we’ve done, we’ve shown that the model that we started on can deliver results very quickly,” Shah said.

He added that Congress is asking important questions about whether DIUx is being responsible with its funding and contracting power.

DIUx is still powering forward with its work despite the uncertainty. Shah said DIUx is focusing on some key technology areas that the commercial sector is also putting money into: autonomy, machine learning, artificial intelligence, networking, commercial space and biotechnology.

DIUx has been somewhat of a success story for DoD. After a rocky start, the organization did $36 million in 2016 in contracts that quickly deliver innovative products to warfighters based on needs from the battlefield.

“Raj [Shah] and his team are already bringing in game-changing technologies that will benefit America’s warfighters. They’ve closed five deals in the last three months, totaling $3.5 million. It took an average of just over 50 days after they first interacted with a company to award these funds — that’s light speed for the Department of Defense, and appropriately so. And they have another 22 more projects in the pipeline, for an additional $65 million — in areas like network defense, autonomous seafaring drones, and virtual war-gaming,” Carter said.

Still, the contracts DIUx awarded in 2016 went to more established companies and not nontraditionally defense-minded startups that DoD is trying to attract.

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