DHS Wants to Take a Page from the Startup Community

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The Homeland Security Department is constantly developing new technology to keep pace with the latest national security threats, and it’s relying on strategies from tech startups to do so, according to the agency’s research and development leader.

“Given the times we live in, we need to be more agile [with] how we spend our resources, taking a page from the startup community,” said William Bryan, the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary for science and technology. “We have to change and act more like a venture capitalist for our DHS security technology. We have to focus on return on investment.”

In his role, Bryan oversees the 14 Homeland Security Centers of Excellence, university partnerships responsible for building innovative technologies to solve many of the agency’s most pressing problems. At the agency’s annual Centers of Excellence Summit on Thursday, he stressed the need to stay ahead of adversaries in emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and big data analytics.

With new dangers presenting themselves every day, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate constantly scans the tech world looking for solutions to both present and future problems, Bryan said. It’s rare to find a technology that addresses every angle of a given problem, but he said when a solution is promising, S&T is more than willing to inject the extra funding to get it over the finish line.

“We simply can’t afford to be years behind on this,” Bryan said, “When [Homeland Security] realizes they’ve got a problem … their solution needs to be quick and turned around very rapidly. Long gone are the days of taking five-plus years to come up with a solution.”

His office already has programs in place that model a startup approach to research and development, such as the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, which acts as an accelerator for companies with the potential to boost the country’s national security apparatus. Participants are currently developing technologies to secure the internet of things, enhance drone capabilities, effectively screen travelers and improve other areas.

Bryan encouraged the Centers of Excellence to keep his office in the loop on the direction of their projects and collaborate with one another to share best practices.

“A good hockey player skates to the puck, a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be,” Bryan said, quoting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. “In this area of homeland security … we have to go skate to where the puck is going to be. We have to meet the threat where it’s going to be before it gets there.”