Some cyber startups skeptical on lawmakers’ show of support

Startup office - photo by Heisenberg Media / CC 2.0

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Cybersecurity startups are getting a major show of support from lawmakers who want to make it easier for them to do business with federal agencies.

The House Committee on Homeland Security Wednesday passed the Support for Rapid Innovation Act and the Leveraging Emerging Technologies Act of 2016, causing a cohort of private, small business owners to rejoice.

In both cases, the legislation was originally introduced by Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, a lawyer and the current chairman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies. He once served as the chief of anti-terrorism and national security for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Texas during the presidency of George W. Bush.

In broad strokes, the two part legislative push aims to mitigate difficulties faced by startups as they try to navigate the federal procurement process.

Andrew Chang, the co-founder of a tech startup incubator in Northern Virginia that helps member companies secure government business, explained that cybersecurity startups have been especially hampered by an arduous, opaque and confusing procurement process.

He wrote in an email to FedScoop: “We see many of our members with cutting edge cybersecurity solutions struggle with getting their newest products to market due to the slow procurement process. By the time they win a contract, the cyber threat landscape has already changed and rigorous adjustments need to be implemented in order for their product to remain effective.”

Chang believes that the committee’s passage of the two bills is a “step in the right direction” but cautioned about outright celebration.

Elsewhere in Virginia, venture capitalist Jonathan Aberman’s business consulting shop for startups — which has already worked closely with a myriad of agencies and organizations like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Defense Labs, Army, Air Force, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy — is applauding the move while also remaining skeptical like Chang.

“[The passage] is another welcomed development in a trend … However, only focusing on venture capital-backed startups limits the scope of the search – because in any given year there are only a few thousand companies that receive venture capital … Most venture-backed startups must grow faster, and in bigger markets, than are available in the national security sector. Acquisition reform is good, but if focused narrowly it will not be of significant utility,” Aberman told FedScoop.

He said that programs which “reach out to nontraditional sources, that are either pre-venture capital or not interested in venture capital,” help a broader range of small businesses. He mentioned the DARPA Robotics Fast Track and DHS’ rapid grant program as two such examples. “We expect to see a broader range of agencies using similar approaches over the coming year,” said Aberman.

More specifically, the Support for Rapid Innovation Act of 2016’s passage came via an amendment to the Homeland Security Act of 2002 — which had set in place a rudimentary framework for the Fed and private sector to work together towards cybersecurity technology development and acquisition. The new amendment, however, adds muscle to the department’s technology acquisition team through oversight from the undersecretary for science and technology.

On the other hand, the Leveraging Emerging Technologies Act of 2016 directly encourages the Homeland Security secretary to “engage with innovative and emerging technology developers and firms, including technology-based small businesses and startup ventures, to address homeland security needs.”

Interestingly, the bill also enables DHS to “establish personnel and office space” in areas “with high concentrations of such innovative and emerging technology developers” so as to “ensure proven innovative and emerging technologies can be included in existing and future acquisition contracts.”

To contact the reporter on this story you can send him an email via chris.bing@fedscoop.com or follow him on Twitter at @Bing_Chris. Subscribe to the Daily Scoop to get all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, Government IT News, House Homeland Security Committee, Procurement, startups
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