Carter: DIUx armed with new method to develop tech faster

Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses members of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. (Defense Department)

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A recent overhaul to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental features many changes to the program’s structure, including a new way for the Defense Department to acquire technology at a faster pace, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Tuesday.

Celebrating the official opening of a DIUx hub in Boston, Carter described a litany of changes introduced to DIUx during the last few months, from additions to its new advisory board to an operational reorganization.

Raj Shah, named DIUx 2.0 managing partner in May, and his team developed and launched in five weeks an contracting methodology called “a Commercial Solutions Opening, which leverages expanded acquisition authorities for prototyping that Congress codified for us last fall,” Carter explained.

Under this new approach to coordinate defense acquisition, DIUx signed an agreement in just 31 days with a company called Halo Neuroscience, Carter said. The agreement involves a headset the company developed that uses electrical stimulation to help the brain adapt to training.

“These headsets will be used by teams from our special operations forces, who will work with Halo to gauge how effective their device might be at improving marksmanship, close-quarters combat skills and overall strength training,” Carter said.

More projects on diverse subjects, such as secure network mapping and autonomous seafaring drones, are expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, he added.

Acquiring new technology for prototyping through this method starts with DIUx posting a description of a problem in need of a solution on its website. Any interested company — from a startup to a commercial firm — shares information, and invited companies pitch their ideas to DIUx partners, Carter explained. DIUx then looks to issue funding within 60 days of meeting with a company, he said.

The awards are “fast, flexible and collaborative,” Carter said in his remarks. He added that the new approach has already gotten positive feedback.

“There’s value for everyone in being able to start with a problem set and a few parameters rather than having to meet a specific laundry list of pre-determined, and sometimes rigid capability requirements, which is how it usually works in defense acquisition,” Carter said. “With DIUx, companies get the freedom to engage in the discovery process, which is often the most interesting part, and customers get more innovative solutions.”

Carter also announced new additions to the Defense Innovation Advisory Board and DIUx 2.0’s leadership.

The board added leaders from major tech organizations like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Instagram Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine. Other additions included Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka, and noted astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The 15-member board will report its initial recommendations on DIUx operations by October.

Likewise, Carter announced the addition of Chief Science Officer Bernadette Johnson, who is the former chief technology officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories, and DIUx Boston military lead Col. Mike McGinley, who was leading the U.S. Cyber Command’s private-sector partnership team, Carter said, and is a lawyer who has specialized in cybersecurity.

With the official launch of the Boston office, Carter said DIUx 2.0 will begin exploring ways to employ innovations within biodefense and biotechnology, describing the organization’s second home as a “beehive of activity for biotechnology and the biosciences” and a good addition to the DIUx team.

“I think in decades to come, we’ll look back and view the IT revolution as having been the recent past, the present and future being also a revolution in the biosciences,” Carter said. “We in DOD want to be part of that as well, because even though we don’t have quite as much of a legacy here as we do in IT or aerospace, we know it can have a tremendous impact on the health and welfare and effectiveness of our troops.”

Carter’s speech also addressed some of the past congressional concerns about the program’s prior narrow focus on one geographic region and its lack of a process to improve the department’s notoriously lengthy contracting process.

[Read more: Obama threatens veto of defense bill over tech outpost funding]

“DIUx has to be engaged nationwide, because no two innovation ecosystems are alike – each has its own unique value and expertise,” Carter said. “And wherever innovation is happening, we need to be able to tap into it.”

With the introduction of the new office, Carter said DIUx 2.0 will restructure into three teams: the Engagement, Foundry and Venture teams.

The Engagement team will focus on introductions between military and entrepreneurs, Carter said, while the Foundry team will work technology that needs more maturing or adaptation before department use, and the Venture team will find emerging technology and explore how it could be applied for Defense Department customers.

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Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, DIU (formerly DIUx)
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