Official: Feedback on DHS Silicon Valley Experiment Has Been Positive

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Homeland Security wants startups to pitch new technology without being asked.

A federal effort to absorb technology from startups appears to be going well, a Homeland Security Department official says.

In January, the department asked commercial companies to propose technology that could help secure the internet of things, a term for the connected network of devices and sensors, from intruders. Last spring, DHS opened its office in Silicon Valley, as part of an attempt to tap into the area's rich concentration of tech talent and cutting-edge products.

So far, feedback from startups has been “very positive,” Melissa Ho, managing director of DHS’ Silicon Valley office, said during a panel in Washington on Wednesday.

About 135 parties attended DHS’ Industry Day event in Silicon Valley, which detailed the department’s need for technology that could help detect devices connected to a network, authenticate those devices and securely update their software. Three of four companies that subsequently received awards from DHS were based in that geographic area -- the fourth was in Austin, Texas.

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“Traditional procurement and assistance processes sometimes take too long and are ineffective at deploying state-of-the-art Homeland Security innovations,” DHS wrote in its original solicitation.

Federal efforts to work more closely with the startup world have been the subject of recent congressional scrutiny. Earlier this month, lawmakers asked for briefings from both DHS and the Defense Department on the "strategic objectives" and "implementation strategy" of their programs in Silicon Valley. 

On Wednesday, Ho described what could be a symbiotic relationship between startups and the federal government -- one of DHS' awardees parlayed its contract into a "double down of seed investment funding,” she said.

So far, DHS has issued very specific calls for technology, Ho said, but there are probably technology needs DHS isn't even aware of.  

"When we spoke to a number of the startup companies, they said, 'I don't know how to help you 'til you tell me what you need,'" Ho said.

DHS is planning more events in which representatives from individual components, like the Customs and Border Protection agency, can walk entrepreneurs through their work days, allowing outside groups to suggest improvements. 

And for now, DHS has been relying on a "network of networks" including groups such as Mach 37, a cybersecurity-themed incubator based in Herndon, Virginia, to get the word out about these calls. Eventually, DHS plans to upload videos from various industry day events so entrepreneurs anywhere can learn about DHS' needs, Ho said. 

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