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Connecting Private Innovation and National Security

March 31, 2014
By Rita Boland
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A new effort to connect entrepreneurs with national security agencies that need their ideas has taken hold as a public-private partnership in Arlington, Virginia. Tandem NSI hopes to accelerate innovation in the national security sphere through the work.

The organization is a combination of Arlington Economic Development and Jonathan Aberman, a venture capitalist who serves as the managing director and founder of Amplifier Ventures. Aberman began the initial pilot about a year ago, funding it mostly himself to create connections through the Ballston Innovation Initiative, which he calls a series of experiments to determine what would happened if nontraditional performers and agencies interfaced. Nontraditional performers are companies who do not do business with the government and would not plan to do so generally. Aberman arranged a series of Tech Throwdowns—basically ideation meetings—with innovators and groups such as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Aberman’s impetus stemmed from the view that the way to accelerate the D.C. region’s position as a technology center relied on these nontraditional performers. Last summer, the governor of Virginia noticed the effort and offered funding assistance. The relationship with Arlington County then formed. Tandem NSI helps meet a need among a growing number of program managers who realize they have a blind spot if they fail to reach out to small businesses and nontraditional performers.

Cultural and contractual impediments hinder relationships between the two sides. “The contract regime … creates a lot of friction,” Aberman says. Tandem NSI is cognizant that changes will come incrementally. As the two sides work to engage more, the contract vehicles to facilitate partnering should adapt, but slowly. First, enough people have to support such efforts and take part in them. Aberman explains that the organization will help national security agencies marshal the community of entrepreneurs to meet government needs. Because it is state funded, the work is done at no cost to participants. The organization offers help to nontraditional partners and entrepreneurs by assisting them with making connections they can foster.

Currently, Tandem NSI mainly arranges forum-type events that bring together the government with these entrepreneurs; it does not offer personalized connections. Aberman says he sees two ecosystems in the D.C. area: one that revolves around the government and one that is totally removed. His organization creates greater transparency between them. “That’s my vision,” he states. “That’s what Tandem NSI will do.” In the short term, it focuses on identifying agency programs that seek rapid innovation. “Tandem NSI is designed just to connect the dots,” Aberman explains.

He continues that conversations with government contractors emphasize that business as usual is over, and companies need to determine how to position themselves as value providers. Government dialogue recognizes the need to improve rapidity in the innovation cycle while making dollars go further. Aberman believes these conditions create a “perfect storm” for nontraditional performers to enter and help the national security arena. The downturn in the economy and government budgets should not impede startups; many of the nation’s most prominent companies began in recessions, he adds. Product development companies have opportunities in many areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Though centered in Arlington and focused on the D.C. area now, the issue of connecting innovators and the national security community is national. Eventually, the concept could expand.

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