Free thinking

Defense initiative scours industry for innovative ideas

Known more for big spending than penny-pinching, the Defense Department has devised an almost scandalously cheap way to unearth new, innovative technology.

The year-old Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative, known as DeVenCI, uses the free expertise, eyes and ears of 11 high-power, private-sector venture capitalists in scouring the country for technology that is new and ready for deployment. When the agency finds such technology, it invests no money. Instead, it brokers a meeting of interested parties and lets events take their course.

The brainchild of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, DeVenCI works like this: First, its four-person staff, led by Robert Pohanka, former director of the Office of Naval Research's Science and Technology Department, meets with acquisition staff members from DOD agencies to learn their technology needs.

A lot of information 'comes from the DOD and government acquisition community, who define needs and help us define opportunities. We get a lot of input from research and development organizations and especially from the warfighter,' Pohanka said.

DeVenCI staff members compile a wish list and meet with the board of advisers, composed of the 11 venture capitalists, to discuss agency needs. Board members then return to their companies and begin to search.

For the next month and a half, they review proposals from technology companies. 'This is how they make money.'

The size of the companies doesn't matter, Pohanka said. 'It can be as small as two people in a garage.' The focus is on workable innovation, he said. 'We're very product-oriented.'

Innovators also are invited to apply directly, via DeVenCI's Web site (devenci.dtic.mil). DeVenCI staff members meet again with the board, whose members usually bring recommendations for about 30 companies, and DeVenCI adds five or six more.

'Then we do a tech scrub of what they offer and get it down to 10 or 11 companies,' said Michael Dingman, DeVenCI's communications expert, under contract from ITT.

Representatives from each of those companies are invited to make a presentation at a workshop that DeVenCI hosts for DOD acquisition employees. Each company has 20 minutes to demonstrate its product and answer questions.

The topical workshops are where DeVenCI spends the bulk of its budget: $2.8 million for this year. Last month's workshop focused on network infrastructure. A March workshop presented identity management technologies. Other topics include applied cryptography, information delivery and security management tools.

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