Bringing cutting-edge emerging technology from the private sector into the U.S. government is critical to better serving Americans and strengthening our competitive advantage globally. And accelerators are an important tool to bridging that gap between the tech industry and federal agencies.
There’s a misconception within federal agencies that running a typical, early-stage accelerator will drive instant, innovative, lasting results for government missions. That confusion stems from a lack of clarity on what the government’s needs and goals are.
More than early-stage ideas and introductions, the government needs emerging tech companies that are fully vetted for federal and ready to scale their solutions into programs of record.
In her recent testimony before Congress, Christine Fox, the former head of the Department of Defense’s powerful Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) unit, said: “The principal challenge DOD faces is not a lack of innovation. The tougher task is how to adopt all this new innovation more rapidly into DOD programs… We have lots of prototypes, but what we need is sustainable programs.”
So, if the need is bringing proven tech onto contract fast to improve mission outcomes in the long run, accelerators must be specialized and tailored to address that requirement. After all, accelerators are not one-size-fits-all.
First, understand the existing market
When the mandate is to innovate, the government does not need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, look to the emerging tech landscape first to assess what is available and can accelerate mission outcomes.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) launched a new tech accelerator in St. Louis to help startups develop new geospatial tech, and the first cohort will focus on early-stage startups in advanced analytics and modeling, data integrity and security, data management, and artificial intelligence. While the NGA Accelerator will provide a helpful cash infusion to spur more development of the St. Louis startup ecosystem, the reality is that the early-stage focus misses the opportunity to take advantage of existing, funded ventures that are already well-positioned to solve the same government problems.
High-growth, venture-backed companies like Fraym, Unearth, Uptake, and Hyperscience have tech solutions that are already in action in the private sector, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment, vetted for the federal market, and ready to improve mission outcomes at scale.
Of course not all commercial tech companies are equipped to support government missions and to forego rigorous evaluation is even more harmful than failing to work with the existing commercial tech landscape altogether. Good thing there are specialized training and partnership opportunities to help the U.S. government navigate the tech industry and make sure companies are fully vetted and equipped to win in the federal market.
If the tech that the government needs already exists in the commercial market, government should work with those vetted, later-stage companies that can move fast. Where technology gaps exist, government should look to earlier-stage companies, but expect that adoption will take much longer and the risk is much higher. Too often, the government spends time and money to run an accelerator to help companies develop tech that already exists, which the government could just evaluate and buy if it’s the right fit.
Go beyond ideas and introductions
From what we’ve seen at Dcode, when the government calls for an accelerator, it’s really calling for a way to work with emerging tech companies and accelerate their solutions onto contracts and into missions.
Not synonymous with incubators, angel investors, or co-working spaces, typical accelerators provide education, mentorship, and financing to early-stage companies in cohorts. Over the course of a few months, typical accelerators help companies establish themselves as corporate entities, develop products, and secure funding.
An accelerator can be a way to get commercial tech mission-ready, but there is so much more to it than generating ideas and making introductions if you want to drive real, lasting tech modernization in the government. What the government needs is a “scalerator”: a next-level model that accelerates proven, government-viable tech from the private sector into the federal market to improve mission outcomes fast in a meaningful, sustainable way.
Finding emerging tech is easy, equipping it to succeed in government is hard. Government agencies should look to venture capital firms and specific accelerators that have the expertise to guide tech companies through the government market contracting process and equip them to succeed. More than winning just a singular contract award, to get over the “valley of death,” these tech companies must have a strong grasp on government use cases, federal contracting, and operational processes to scale into programs of record.
Don’t stop at educating tech
Showing tech companies all the ins and outs of working with the U.S. government through a typical accelerator is only half the battle. If there’s no contract and plan to pull the right tech in, then you won’t be able to advance missions with commercial technology.
In addition to accelerating tech companies, federal agencies must better define problem sets, know the emerging tech landscape, employ innovative procurement, align innovation hubs with their mission-focused offices, and connect with leaders across other agencies to share lessons learned. It’s critical that government teams know how to scale solutions to advance their mission. Then they will be ready to work with cutting-edge tech companies that make sense for the mission.
Accelerators that provide education only for tech companies won’t cut it. There’s a reason government leaders have been requesting training from Dcode for years on how to innovate like a startup, evaluate like an investor, and apply agile procurement. Forward-leaning leaders recognize the need to shift culture and processes on the government side too.
Given this evident need for complementary education, if an accelerator does not also equip the government side, the effort will fall short.
We already know that if the U.S. does not bring new, cutting-edge, commercial emerging tech into the government, our country will continue to fall behind globally in the competition for economic prosperity and national security. The time is now to work smartly and swiftly with organizations that can bring the most promising, innovative tech from the private sector onto public sector contracts.
Meagan Metzger is the founder and CEO of Dcode, a privately-owned company focused on connecting tech and government to bring commercial solutions to critical challenges.