National Defense R&D and Internet Startups

26 / August 2016,

National Defense R&D and Internet Startups

Creating an internet startup company comes with more than its share of complications. The website itself represents a small investment, but building up and emerging as a fully operational organization takes time, effort, and funding. When looking for potential investors, though, many fail to recognize the potential that the federal government offers. In particular, funding through agencies and organizations tied to the Department of Defense can create opportunities for many technology-based internet startups. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico offers funding competitions and opportunities that can help fledgling companies get on their feet and move into the future. If you present your company and your technology well, through your website and online marketing approach, you can work with some of the most intelligent scientists in the world to develop it into a refined, finished product. As they help you move that technology into the private sector, you gain opportunities to launch successfully and grow from a more advantageous starting point than any of your would-be competitors.

Why Internet Startups Matter

Technology thrives on innovation and new ideas. While established companies can offer some of this, they tend to offer updates to and derivatives from their current technology. The iPhone 6 represents some great advances over an iPhone 5, but the essential components of the technology remain the same. Indeed, most companies develop with preservation of their current product lines in mind, rather than with plans to upend an industry in which they have been thriving. It makes sense from their perspective to develop ideas similar to what is in place, rather than to risk losing current customers who are used to what they already have.

Internet startups, in contrast, push the envelope as the norm rather than the exception. While established entities create upgrades, startups are where you find new concepts and new ideas, attempts to truly revolutionize technology. They do not exist with one foot planted firmly in the past, but rather drive forward to create, grow, and evolve—and if all goes well, to bring a large swath of the population with them. They provide the kind of free thinking that helps a people grow, that identifies emerging needs and seeks to fulfill them.

This is where defense spending to help internet startups makes sense. It is a way for the government to foster technological growth, both for the improvement of the economy and for the development of products that can help defend a country increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks, both from abroad and from within. It is an investment in the private sector that can yield immeasurable public sector gains.

Cybersecurity and Its Discontents

Today, many of the best technological minds in the world belong to hackers. Every day, new malicious code emerges, and cyber security companies struggle to identify the threats and design ways to stop them. The game necessarily involves a game of perpetual catch-up. Often, the threats are neutralized before they can cause serious damage. But too many times, prevention has come only after an attack: on a retailer, on a bank, or on a government. The odds are stacked too much against the defense in these situations, and it is only a matter of time before the next big data breach.

This grim reality creates a powerful incentive for government to sponsor internet startups, and particularly those that focus on technology. If brilliant people develop great ideas that can get in front of attacks, it helps prevent the worst of what can happen. And if these brilliant people find positive paths to success, they are less likely to create problems as an alternative. They gain opportunities to create, and to gain success from something they can give the world, rather than from something they take away.

Beyond distraction, though, the movement of brilliant programmers into cybersecurity fields gives an opportunity to identify system weaknesses before they can be exploited. An internet startup in cybersecurity generally creates the greatest contributions from employees and owners who have the ability to create attacks themselves. Attacks happen when someone finds and attacks a systemic weakness. If someone working on the defense side follows the same approach, he or she can find those weaknesses first, and build patches to remove the weaknesses before the real attack occurs. The power of getting there first can be vital, and getting the right people doing this work prevents disaster from striking.

Blending Public and Private Goals

Because of this, government groups are doing more today than ever before to foster private sector startup growth. The Sandia National Laboratories, for example, works with private partners regularly, and has built a reputation for transferring technologies developed there to the private sector. The result includes a boost to the United States economy, as more private sector innovation means more jobs, and more money for consumers to spend. It also helps boost the profile of the Sandia Laboratories, and ensures that some of the best, most exciting technological developments can continue and move into the private sector.

The idea of public support for private job growth has been a controversial one for a long time. Some people think it smacks of socialism, while others believe this kind of governmental focus on job creation puts too much emphasis on businesses at the expense of programs on which the government could do more for programs that can benefit those who need it most. But the Sandia approach provides both a benefit to governmental agencies through the scientific endeavors it leads and supports, and a benefit to the private in helping sponsor the development of technologies that will both support job growth and create positive change in the world.

If the collaborations and partnerships continue, they result in new technologies that can develop every year, both improving the level of innovation in the country and fostering widespread economic growth in the region. And when the technology helps launch new internet startups, it creates the kind of technological outreach that can push out and benefit the entire country. Public/private partnerships of this kind can create economic and technological growth that serves everyone.

Israel: A Model for the Approach

When we look at success in startup companies, particularly in the technology sector, a surprising model springs up: Israel. Dubbed the Startup Nation by authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Israel has led the world for years in startup companies generated on a per capita basis. This success has not come by accident; the Israeli government has long since adopted policies designed to generate startup emergence in the country. And like the approach in the Sandia National Laboratories, Israel’s fostering begins with governmental service.

There, citizens are required to serve under a compulsory service model with the Israeli Defense Force, during some of the formative adult years. The most scientifically advanced members of the IDF, though, move to technology training, where they earn the opportunity to develop their skills among like-minded individuals while serving their country. The result is a highly-trained workforce that moves into technological fields and innovates frequently when it reaches the private sector.

In Israel, the reasons for this kind of development straddle the public and private sectors; the nation faces constant fear of other nations in the region, both from the threat of physical attacks and from the threat of cyber attacks. Having a force trained in sophisticated technologies, and ready to develop new ones to solve emerging problems, makes sense. Similarly, the United States faces consistent online threats, both for its private citizens and companies and the government’s systems. Since the U.S. does not have a draft or compulsory military service, though, fostering technology development through competition and government-sponsored research and development serves the same purposes here.

How the Collaboration Works

Sandia National Laboratories support research in a number of ways. They support university research, both by investing in university laboratories and by sponsoring work by specific faculty members. They also partner with researchers and companies in the Albuquerque community and beyond to help generate original research in technology areas. Finally, they offer partnership opportunities that provide research assistance to small businesses that face technology-related problems. The focus in all of this is to help develop technologies that benefit the community and the country. While Sandia itself is a governmental agency, the focus remains pushing technology out into the private sector.

The results have been outstanding, both in elevating Sandia’s positioning and in helping the community and the country. The research that the Laboratories foster generates has been transferred out for more than three decades, and has resulted in economic boosts and technological leaps throughout that time. By developing the tech at Sandia, the agency can help guide directions and direct it in ways that will be most beneficial, in developing energy solutions, environmental solutions, and defense applications. The public and private benefits go hand in hand, arguable the best outcome possible for this kind of governmental partnership.

Making Internet Startups Better

In managing research in this way, the researchers at Sandia can help guide scientific development in helpful ways. Working with businesses and university students, for example, allows government scientists to direct the research and development toward more effective, disciplined approaches. The results become more likely to have commercial value, and to provide safe, beneficial technologies. Rather than unfettered lab work, the research partnerships that emerge from the Sandia National Laboratories are focused and more likely to move toward an endpoint of success.

This is not to say, of course, that the research will be fully directed by government scientists. The opportunity to work with Sandia gives students and businesses opportunities to direct research in new and exciting directions, toward ideas they might not otherwise be able to explore. But by instilling discipline in the approach to that research, the Laboratories can help guide that original research toward conclusions and endpoints that a more haphazard approach may not be able to reach.

The discipline of this approach can also go on to help internet startups grow beyond their nascent states. Too often, a startup fails because it starts and ends with a great idea. The rigors of running a business become the forgotten component that could make the difference between success and failure. But when a guided approach to the technology leads to focused work in maintaining and building business operations, the resulting company has a greater chance to grow and evolve over time. A sustained growth pattern follows, and benefits everyone involved.

Gaining Access to Defense-Sponsored Research

A classic Dilbert cartoon involves Dilbert’s pitch to a company of a technology that transforms pocket lint into a parsley substitute. When the manager listening to the pitch declares the product both brilliant and “completely unmarketable,” Dilbert thanks him and declares that he is “technology driven.” Research that Sandia National Laboratories take on would never include something of that ilk, because they focus on technology that will create real benefits in the marketplace. With everything at stake for individuals and companies that want to access research partnerships, competition to gain access is predictably fierce. Applicants need to be working in a field the Laboratories can support, and be able to demonstrate the value and applicability of the technology. The work, in short, should be worth the government’s while.

Part of demonstrating this is an understanding of what the technology at issue actually is. If you are looking to develop tech for your startup, you should know where you are going, and why. Realistically, this should be true of any internet startup anyway; your business should have specific goals and direction to serve your future customers. And if you can outline it for the government, you can outline it for them as well. Demonstrate who you are and what you can do, and you gain an advantage in seeking governmental resources to help your research and development.

That should also include a scientific basis for believing your technology will work. While the development itself can take time and evolve over the course of your research, a pie in the sky idea that may not be technically feasible will likely not find the funding you need. As exciting as a flying car that runs on trash thrown into Mr. Fusion may be, there needs to be a pathway to success.

Why It Makes Sense

If you are considering creating a technology-based internet startup, everything that you would do to gain access to a government lab like Sandia should also fit what you would seek to do from a business perspective in the first place. You want to demonstrate a feasible technology that creates enough public benefit to gain customers, and demonstrating to the government that the technology has value includes many of the same showings. The governmental stamp of approval also can provide a boost as you take the work to the market, both financially and from a marketing perspective. Your internet startup has a huge head start if you gain both the research assistance and the prestige of a Sandia partnership.

In addition, working with the government on your research gives you security in what you are doing. Someone looking to steal your ideas and technology would have a much harder time if you are working in secure government facilities than if you are developing the technology in your garage. You work with brilliant people who are used to protecting the work they do. Your work thus gains protection at a level you would not be able to reach anywhere else.

Finally, doing work that can interest and benefit government scientists gives you the shot of confidence you need to help you succeed in what can be a daunting operation. Most business owners, and in particular those who work to develop internet startups, suffer from doubts at some point about whether anyone will want to use the products, services, or applications they develop. This is natural; going out on a limb to create something new leaves you isolated, and can be a scary proposition indeed. Partnering with a governmental organization like Sandia should help dispel some of those fears and help you understand the value of what you are creating.

In the end, building a successful internet startup comes down to the effort and planning that you put in to executing your vision. But partnering with a government agency that can help you develop the technology provides benefits to you and to the public that will become your potential customer base. Your technology startup should seek to solve problems: in how well people can do something, in a product missing from their lives, or in a service that helps them do what they do more effectively or safely. The government has an interest in helping people turn great ideas into reality, and works through labs like Sandia to help businesses and individuals create paths to do so. If you present yourself well with an effective website and marketing plan, you can gain the kind of access that can lift your internet startup toward early and sustainable success.