Industry to DOD: There’s Innovation in the Beltway, Too

Defense Secretary Ash Carter

Defense Secretary Ash Carter Cliff Owen/AP File Photo

The West Coast outreach doesn’t sit well with some members of the Beltway’s defense contracting base who feel ignored.

The Pentagon has made an unprecedented push to cozy up with Silicon Valley over the past two years, opening satellite offices on the West Coast and Boston in an effort to import fresh insight, ideas and innovation from the private sector to the military.

But the highly public outreach doesn’t sit well with some members of the Beltway’s defense contracting base who feel ignored and overlooked despite knowing how to navigate the Defense Department’s complex acquisition and procurement processes.

“It really ticks me off that we have to go outside this area to Silicon Valley to talk about innovation,” said Gregory Glaros, CEO of Synexxus, an Arlington, Virginia-based IT company. Glaros spoke Friday at the Defense One Tech Summit.

“We ignore local innovation because we glibly think all the innovation is taking place out there,” said Glaros, who called Silicon Valley’s tech start-up culture a “public Ponzi scheme.”

“I call it a public Ponzi scheme because you and I as taxpayers pay it in the write-off of the investment companies that put money forward,” Glaros continued. “There are a lot of nice ideas, but they’re not products, and to take an idea into a product and into a sellable market is not trivial.”

It’s even more complex in the defense space, which is governed in large part by acquisition policies written before the rise of digital technology.

“Frankly, we’ve survived directly by creating new products in new markets in a period of three to six months,” Glaros added. “I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter defended his department’s at-times controversial search for innovative technologies and ideas as imperative to national security, stating the U.S. has always been able to “out-innovate” its enemies.

“To stay ahead and the best, I'm urging the Pentagon to think outside our box,” said Carter, who also spoke at the summit.

On Friday, Carter also announced new additions to the Defense Innovation Board, a collection of high-profile technology experts the Pentagon believes might help advise it on new military technologies.

The board is chaired by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and now includes Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and retired Adm. Bill McRaven. Carter said the board may end up with as many as 12 members, and could produce its first set of recommendations to the Pentagon by the fall.

In contrast to the Cold War days when military technology’s preeminent feature was strength – whether in weapons systems or other capacities – Carter said today’s successful military technologies are characterized by speed, agility and innovation.

The quest for ideas shouldn’t be viewed as the government punishing traditional contractors or favoring Valley players, Defense officials say.

Camron Gorguinpour, director of transformational innovation at the U.S. Air Force’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Acquisitions, said the military’s purpose “is to go out and find innovative ideas” wherever they may be.

“When we try to engage with these innovation hubs, it’s not an indictment of our traditional supply base at all,” Gorguinpour said.

Gorguinpour compared the Pentagon’s West Coast outreach to an organization wanting to achieve workforce diversity. A more diverse workforce, he argued, is likely to improve the influx of ideas and thus, improve the organization overall.

“There are companies out there with new ideas about products and services and the business [of government] itself,” Gorguinpour said. “So, it’s important to have centers you can go to and see what’s out there.”