Austin Just Became the U.S. Army’s Silicon Valley

Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The service is making a big bet that getting closer to tech startups will help deter future adversaries.

AUSTIN, Texas — If you were to write a scene set in “a hip tech hub,” you might limn the Capital Factory, a co-working space and startup accelerator in downtown Austin. On a typical day, you can find kids barely old enough to drink who are pitching their startups to top venture-capital firms in a sunlit space, full of beanbag chairs, fun wall murals, green protein shakes, and loads of snacks. It’s not the sort of place you would expect to find Gen. Jim McConville, the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. But last Thursday, that’s where he was, piloting a simulated plane.

“I’m trying to get off the grass,” McConville says from behind a virtual-reality headset. “I’ve flown fixed-wing but this is not the same.” As the helicopter pilot works to get “airborne,” the simulator records his eye movements — the screen in front of him shows a pupil — to determine cognitive load and understand where he is looking and where he’s experiencing stress. The software is constructing a data-driven picture of how he’s absorbed training, data he could use to improve his performance.

It’s the product of a young entrepreneur named David Zakariaie, founder of a company called Senseye. Just 21 years old, Zakariaie represents some of the best of America’s tech startup scene in 2018: ambitious, restless, and able to move a product from idea to reality far faster than the Pentagon can buy one. Proximity to people like him is a big part of why the Army stood up its new four-star Futures Command here on Friday.

“We need an environment to help us change our culture… to get access to talent and innovation,” Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said.

The new command will also centralize the Army’s efforts to grapple with the future. Army officials describe their service’s new organization this way: Forces Command is in charge of present-day readiness; Material Command handles parts and logistics; Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, looks at recruiting, assessment, basic training, and operational doctrine. And the Futures Command will focus on how to win tomorrow’s wars.

The Army took “all the [future-focused] piece parts that were in all of those commands, in disparate ways, lacking unity of effort, and put them under [Gen.] Mike Murray,” the first commander of Futures Command, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “We had people spread out all over. It was an irrational system.”

Last year, the Army laid out several key tech priorities. They include a new ground combat vehicle that can accommodate human drivers or drive itself; new vertical-lift aircraft, including helicopters and drones; new missile defenses; longer-ranged and much smarter missiles and artillery; a communications network that can connect to every digital node on the battlefield despite Russian or Chinese electromagnetic warfare; and a variety of soldier-borne tech, everything from bug drones to exoskeletons to training technology to help U.S. soldiers become more lethal.

On its face, it’s the sort of tech wishlist that established defense contractors should have no problem making for the Army. But service leaders are seeking things that will be relevant to the world of a decade hence. How a military institution designs vehicles, helicopters, sensors, and communication networks in 2020 and beyond will be radically different from how it would have built those sorts of things in the past.

Rapid advancement in information technology doesn’t just change how news organizations reach readers and how Hollywood releases films, it also changes how you buy and build tanks, trucks, missiles, and helicopters. Machine vision and autonomy will be as important to future vehicles as any other mechanical part. But new technologies like computer-aided design, and 3-D printing will change all of those parts as well.

Startups like Senseye can navigate that space far faster than big, top-driven companies, even very innovative ones. It’s no wonder defense players like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon have all opened their own venture-capital outfits. And it’s why the Army headquartered its future-weapons hub amid this city’s thriving startup tech scene.

“When we look at where we are today, we feel the weapon systems that we have in place, the technology we have in place, is good enough for today. We don’t think it’s good enough for tomorrow. As we take a look at the information age and how quickly things are changing, how fast the technology is moving in the civilian sector, we believe to stay competitive we can’t wait seven to 10 to 15 years to field systems,” said McConville. “The young innovators here are fielding systems in months. If we want to stay technologically ahead, we have to change our processes. We have to change the way we are organized to do these things.”

Referring to the Army’s modernization priorities, Army Secretary Mark Esper said, “I’m not confident we can get to those priorities and the capabilities we need by 2028 with the current acquisition system…If you’re trying to drive using an old car and you have to keep stopping to fuel and fix it, it’s going to take a long time [to reach your destination] and cost you more money than it needs to. We’re trying to assemble a new car that you can get you there much more quickly.”

At the same time that the military is looking to strengthen its ties to tech, Congress will be making it harder for competing nations like China and Russia to invest in the same sorts of startups that might have relevance to the Futures Command. That’s because of changes to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which became law as part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who pushed the legislation and played a key role in Murray’s confirmation, connected the two.

“Whether it’s DARPA or Army Futures Command looking to invest in these startup companies that have potential dual-use applications, once they get it up and running, they go about their business and then the business looks to get commercial investment. China and other potential adversaries of the United States are more than happy to try and get access to technology we, ourselves, have been responsible for creating. We have to be aware of the fact that China has been aggressive in this space. That’s why it was important to update the rules by which the committee on foreign investment operates.”

The Next Stage of DoD Outreach to Startups

The last time the Army undertook such a massive reorganization was 1973. But no branch of the military has ever stood up a command headquarters like this. Unlike a typical military base, surrounded by guards armed with M4 machine guns and drab government architecture, the Futures Command’s main office will be in a slick downtown skyscraper with its own massive downtown “storefront.” The Command will also have a big physical presence at Capital Factory, among the beanbag chairs, as well as at the Engineering Education and Research Center at the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering, which has a strong focus on rapid manufacturing. Stroll the halls at the center and you’ll find lab space filled with a variety of 3D printers and engineering students building new robot prototypes with modular, off-the-shelf Raspberry Pi processors.

Over the years, the military has attempted various outreach attempts to the startup tech community, or what they sometimes call “non-traditional” companies. In 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter set up the Defense Innovation Unit (formerly the Defense Innovation Unit experimental) as a sort of liaison outfit between Silicon Valley and the services and combatant commands. In many ways, it represented a workaround to a traditional slow, bureaucratic, acquisition process that was highly geared toward a handful of large, established defense contractors at the expense of so-called non-traditional players.

“DIUx has enlightened everyone’s perspective,” said McCarthy, But the addition of a four-star command “puts in place a robust effort with a leader and with the authorities to make big institutional changes.”

The scale of the Futures Command is far larger. In 2017, DIUawarded about $84 million to startups and other companies,according to internal reporting. Army Futures Command will be overseeing a modernization budget of as much as $37 billion. Much of that goes modernizing legacy equipment right now but more and more of it in the future will go toward developing entirely new equipment and capabilities.

Why Austin

After announcing its plans for Futures Command last year, the Army winnowed a list of more than 150 potential headquarter spots to five: Austin, Philadelphia, Boston, Raleigh and Minneapolis / St. Paul. (The digital map company ESRI has a great rundown on all of them.)

McCarthy said Austin emerged the winner after a rigorous appraisal The city already had a small Defense Innovation Unit and an AFWERX presence. More importantly, it put the right mix of people, institutions, and resources in close proximity.

In the 1970s, MIT’s  Thomas Allen observed that as you spread engineers farther apart geographically, the communication between them became sparser; while clustering them fostered interaction and value gain. His theory is called the Allen Curveand it helps explain why Silicon Valley works the way that it does. It also helps explain the Army’s selection of Austin. Much as Stanford University helped Silicon Valley become the world’s premier startup tech hub, so —the Army hopes—the University of Texas can help Austin become the military’s Silicon Valley.

If the Army’s experiment proves successful, it could be a model for the other services looking to overhaul how they buy tech. But first, a number of things have to happen.

Entrepreneurs who are interested in doing work with the Pentagon often complain about how long it takes to seal a deal — and how the bidding process exposes their intellectual property to competitors. The Army is starting to address that. And Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has made shredding department bureaucracy one of his key priorities.

But there’s a broad cultural shift that has to take place as well. Companies like Senseye are borne of a Silicon Valley approach to building that rewards smart but perpetual experimental and risk-taking, an approach embodied in that old Valley saw: Fail Often. Fail Fast. Fail Cheap. Startup success in the mold of the Valley requires all three elements. The Army, as an institution, is not built to accommodate failure, much less repeat and reward it.

When asked to grade how well the military was embracing the culture of failing fast and cheap, McConville said he had seen the culture change tremendously over the past year but there was much further to go. “I want to start with a ‘C’,” he said.

McCarthy added “C, C-plus.”

Patrick Tucker is Technology Editor for DefenseOne, where this article was originally published

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Erie County, PA offers all local restaurants free digital tools to plan for safe COVID reopening
Erie County, PA, USA
Online permitting and approval process during COVID-19 exceeds in-person performance numbers
Markham, ON, Canada
Chula Vista creates a Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan
Chula Vista, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: Verizon Faces Heat Following Fire Department’s Data ‘Throttling’ During Blazes

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.