“People are tired of building Snapchat.”
The Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Silicon Valley Innovation Program is building a network from the innovation community to make emerging technology more accessible to government. Venture capitalists and IT accelerators are there to help.
The program funds technology companies and startups that can help DHS accomplish its security mission in several sectors, including IT, finance, energy, health and first responders. It reshapes how government, entrepreneurs and industry work together, by reaching out to Silicon Valley and all innovation communities.
So far, the program had funded 20 startups in 18 months across nine areas of tech, Melissa Ho, managing director for the Silicon Valley Office at DHS S&T, said at the July 12 DHS S&T Cyber Security Showcase and Technical Workshop.
While DHS connects to the startup community, venture capitalists and accelerators meet the initiative halfway. VCs collaborate with startups, encouraging them to work with government whenever applicable.
“There really needed to be a new focus and a renewed energy on getting emerging tech into the government market,” said Meagan Metzger, the founder and CEO of Dcode42, at the DHS event. Dcode42 is an IT accelerator that guides tech companies through the rules and regulations of doing business with the government.
Metzger said the accelerator model was a really appealing way to operate, but there wasn’t many specifically concentrated on bringing these private sector technologies into the government market.
Shelly Kapoor Collins, general partner of the San Francisco-based Shatter Fund (which invests in tech companies led by female entrepreneurs), said in a panel with Metzger that in Silicon Valley, there is a wide perception that government is difficult to work with. From a regulatory standpoint, companies also fear being shut down if they don’t stand up to current evaluations.
However, both Collins and Metzger built their organizations with a belief in government technology.
“There’s just a hunger, from our experience, across different tech hubs to really want to solve a real problem, and the government has some very fascinating and amazing missions to accomplish,” Metzger said. “People are tired of building Snapchat, and they want to come and do some real things.”
The technology market can solve the issues the government has, and there is a fundamental shift to do so—but most startups are not checking Federal Business Opportunities for contracts. Ho said this is where her program comes in. She is looking to create those connections, close the cultural barrier and bridge the gap for DHS and across federal agencies, in order to open government to the tech community.
In fact, Metzger sees a wide spectrum of innovation for emerging tech in government, ranging from automating processes to autonomous battleships and everything in between. Her organization builds its programs around themes identified by conversations it has with government agencies and contractors. For example, Dcode42 currently focuses on development tools and platforms; because as government adopts innovative programs, the technologists embedded in agencies don’t have the tools they need to develop.
Government tech needs are also becoming more aligned to those of industry. According to Metzger, bringing private sector technology into the government space used to mean changing the original end product. Now, companies don’t need to reengineer their product as much, which is a large and valuable shift for both sectors.
Though it’s still crucial companies make sure they understand the problem they are trying to solve for the specific agency, and how the agency is going to use that technology. In turn, Metzger said agencies also need to better communicate what they are looking for and providing more clarity around the solution they need.
“If you have more than five acronyms in the paragraph of your requirement document, you’ve lost them,” she said.
Similarly, Collins advocated for a stronger collaboration between agencies and the tech world. To work together more effectively, she recommends companies build in the ability to sell to government from the start, from a sales and regulatory standpoint. This way, companies can get ahead with regulations needed to work with agencies.
And according to Ho, there’s a remaining gap in education on the government side.
“We need to help the [venture capitalist] and accelerator community understand what we’re looking for,” she said. When IT accelerators better understand agency pain points and problems, it opens the door for opportunities.
Ultimately, communication and collaboration can shrink that gap.
“I think there is a lot of misperception across government that you can’t engage and have conversations with vendors,” Metzger said, adding agencies need to be transparent when they can. This way, accelerators and companies will know how to provide agencies with the emerging tech they need.