Homeland Security's Innovation Station
Technologies funded by a DHS Silicon Valley program may soon be deployed.
A variety of systems cultivated under a Homeland Security rapid development program may be fielded late next year, bearing the first major fruits of the 2-year-old effort.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) kicked off its Silicon Valley Innovation Program in 2015 in an attempt to dramatically reduce the time to develop and deploy technology. The program focuses on all areas of the DHS mission, including information technology, finance, energy, health and first responders.
Program officials work largely with smaller companies, often startups that do not normally collaborate with the government. The businesses, in many cases, already have products and commercial customers, but their technologies need to be further developed and adapted to suit DHS needs.
“We actually have [entrepreneurs] whose venture capitalists have told them not to work with government because it’s too slow,” reports Melissa Ho, managing director of the DHS Silicon Valley Innovation Programs Office. But now, she says, startups want to work with the DHS “because we’re a customer that can validate their technology and because we have a way of contracting with them faster.”
The program officials can sign a contract within 45 days from the first meeting with business representatives. That is a breakneck pace by government acquisition standards. The program uses a four-phase process that includes completing a 10-page application and initially demonstrating the commercial product; prototyping; piloting; and fielding. Several products have entered the third phase, and Ho says she hopes to see some being fielded by late next year or early 2019.
“The earlier, the better,” she says. Ho cautions that providing an exact fielding date is difficult because of a number of factors, many of which depend on the operational agencies and are out of her control.
Still, she points out that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are determining how best to transition several of the technologies to support its missions, such as combating drug smuggling and human trafficking. “We’re in active discussions about how we take these technologies and get them more broadly integrated into programs of record and acquisitions,” Ho reports. “A little less than 2 years old, and we’re working toward that end game of transitioning capabilities to the field to make a difference.”
She stresses the importance of having several programs already beginning phase three: piloting. “Our first interaction with some of these companies was only about eight, nine, 10 months ago, so to actually have a prototype ready to pilot is fast in my experience in government research and development,” Ho says.
Companies that have moved into the third phase include Factom of Austin, Texas, which was awarded $199,980 to authenticate devices to prevent spoofing and to ensure data integrity by leveraging blockchain.
Atlanta’s Ionic Security received $199,800 to apply a distributed data protection model to solve the authentication, detection and confidentiality challenges that affect distributed Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Machine-to-Machine Intelligence (M2Mi) Corporation, Moffett Field, California, accepted $200,000 to create a deployable open source version of the Speck cryptographic protocol to address IoT security by making a lightweight crypto package that can run on IoT devices. Lastly, WhiteScope of Half Moon Bay, California, collected $200,000 to build a secure wireless communications gateway made specifically for IoT devices and compliant with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 standard.
Two companies are now in the second phase, prototyping. Atlanta’s Bastille Networks is identifying enterprise IoT protocols. QED Secure Solutions of Coppell, Texas, is developing a robust, vendor-agnostic solution for verifying and validating third-party firmware updates for IoT devices.
The program recently awarded contracts to DataRobot and to HaloLights. The former is a machine learning and predictive analytics company, which Ho says may be able to support the CBP mission. HaloLights is developing wearable technologies to help monitor the health of CBP’s inspection dogs. “These K-9s work diligently in harsh environments. If we can help to monitor their vital signs and well-being, we can more quickly respond if they’re in distress. These K-9s work hard, so we want to make sure we can get them relief if they need it,” Ho says.
The program has expanded to include cities outside of the region, such as Boston; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Chicago; Louisville, Kentucky; and Austin, Texas, and can support international companies as well. Ho says she hopes to increase efforts with entrepreneurs outside the United States next year.
Also over the next year, Ho says the program likely will emphasize cybersecurity, emergency response and IoT technologies. It will stress aviation security too. DHS officials intend to work with entrepreneurs, airlines and airports to explore technologies that could promote more efficient foot traffic through airports. “In 2018, we’re looking to do more in the areas of passenger travel—more seamless ways for passengers to move around airports and through checkpoints,” she says.
For example, the DHS would like to be more aware of bottlenecks at security checkpoints so that passengers can be directed to less crowded locations. The department may be able to piggyback on work being done by airports and individual airlines, which also are seeking technologies that allow passengers to move more fluidly and to monitor where those travelers are located within the airport. “Security checkpoints that move slower work against the airports,” Ho states. “We want to have a better sense of where we need to deploy more security officers at this checkpoint or that checkpoint. We’re looking at how to benefit from the same technologies the airports are using and to help everybody out.”
Developing and harnessing these technologies quickly can happen through liberal use of so-called “other” funding, which enables officials to avoid onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation processes. These rules can make it difficult for startups to work with the federal government. The Silicon Valley program is more straightforward. “We verify they don’t owe the [IRS] tons of money, for example. It doesn’t require the companies to go through getting their financial books audited,” Ho points out.
The program essentially eliminates the formal broad agency announcement or request for proposal, both of which require lengthy written responses and can take months to complete. Instead, the program calls for a 15-minute verbal pitch, followed by a 15-minute question and answer session. That is all it takes for DHS officials to decide whether to move forward with a particular solution. “That actually saves a lot of time on both ends—both the company side and the government side. It happens basically within 24 hours as opposed to months,” she explains.
Furthermore, rather than dictating a long list of requirements that a solution must satisfy, Ho and her team simply present a problem as a use case and ask the entrepreneurs how they would solve it. “It’s a combination of those things that makes it faster for everybody and easier for the startups. It essentially lowers the barrier for them,” she offers.
Another benefit for entrepreneurs is that they can receive government funding to adapt their solutions for government use without sacrificing portions of their business. “The money we provide helps them to refine their product to where a [government] customer is actually going to use it. Usually, they have to pay for that with the venture capital money that they raise, and when that happens, they end up giving up part ownership in their company,” Ho elaborates. “We are just here to help fund the product development side … to help them create a secondary market or get a new customer. That’s of significant value to them.”
But the DHS also benefits from the venture capital funds the companies raise. “Of the approximate $4 million that we’ve spent, we’re leveraging $400 million of venture capital funding,” she offers. “That’s a significant savings from the government standpoint.”
The Silicon Valley Innovation Program has funded 24 companies to date. “To be able to get startups funded quickly, to be able to get them talking to end users quickly and then to have them adapt their products and technologies to address missions has been huge,” Ho declares.