Critical Update: Evolution in the 'Valley of Death'

Artur Debat/Getty Images

Nextgov looks at the use of cooperative research and development agreements by some major industry players to highlight how the meaning of the phrase, and implementation of its associated authorities, has shifted over the years.

Ask the average person working in government technology circles what is meant by the term “Valley of Death” and they’re likely to start describing a list of regulations firms have to follow when trying to sell prototype technology to the government. It typically refers to the period of about two years it takes for products to go from receiving development funding to being incorporated as a program of record within the federal enterprise. 

But when the term first showed up on the scene decades ago, industry was using it to ask the government for a favor: help bridge the valley of death that tech companies face when trying to sell their wares beyond niche hobbyists to a sustaining majority of consumers by spending more money to help industry with its technology development challenges.

For this episode of Critical Update, Nextgov spoke to officials at the Department of Homeland Security’s tech transfer and commercialization program to put the Valley of Death in its historical context and drew attention to where use of the policies could be headed next as major industry players get more involved.

Microsoft’s recent entrance into a cooperative research and development agreement with the Pentagon is focusing attention on a crucial nexus for the Biden administration. Like preceding administrations and congresses, the Biden administration has equated economic security with national security in supporting the transfer of government research and development resources to private companies. But Biden’s White House has also declared robust competition within industry to be a matter of national security. 

“The convergence of economics and national security have really created new intersections in the Biden Administration,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last summer at a National Security Commission summit on artificial intelligence and global emerging technology. “America’s technology leadership was—and again has to be—built on competition, not on concentration.” 

That issue could be coming under the microscope at the implementer level, as tech giants look to address cybersecurity and other broad challenges by taking advantage of policy mechanisms meant for small businesses.