Defense Intelligence Agency’s ‘Shark Tank’ Helps Startups Pitch Spy Apps

Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart speaks to students and staff of North Carolina Central University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University about the opportunities in the U.S. Intelligence Community.

U.S. Marine Corps / Sgt. Antonio J. Rubio

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Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart speaks to students and staff of North Carolina Central University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University about the opportunities in the U.S. Intelligence Community.

DIA analysts who like a product can launch a partnership on the spot.

Setting: A high-tech military facility just outside of Washington, D.C.— the headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA. Anshuman Roy, the president and founder of Rhombus, a data analytics company, is in a large open space outfitted with computers, whiteboards, and cameras. It looks a bit like a young hacker space of the sort that began popping up in San Francisco in 2007 and, before that, in Europe.  

Roy stands in front of a digital projection of a map of Syria. Green and red areas show where his proprietary neural network has determined that unrest or violence is likely imminent. Analysts at DIA can use the tool to look at “precursors to instability,” he explains to a small audience.

The analysts can refine the results by adding or subtracting variables — local economic factors, ethnic and religious makeup, even fresh water availability or food price inflation. This, he explains, is a huge improvement over previous models that relied on just four variables computed by humans. Rhombus’s cloud-based neural net can draw in much more information to help analysts make better predictions.

“It doesn’t give directions. It suggests to help override cognitive bias,” he says.

The audience is made up of analysts from DIA along with one or two folks from other intelligence agencies with three-letter names. A representative from a combatant command is taking part via videochat. The main customers are the DIA analysts. They’re the ones who asked for a tool like the one Roy is pitching, and they’ll evaluate if it’s a good fit for what they do.

All of this is part of a new approach to acquisition and software development called iHUB. DIA stood it up in September but has only recently begun to talk about it with a few journalists.

Here’s how it works: DIA acquisition folks go out and talk to analysts working different types of missions (or mission elements, as the agency calls them), looking for their thoughts about what sort of software would help them do their job better.

The innovation office, headed by Al Bolden, turns the analysts’ thoughts into more formal requests posted to the agency’s NeedopeDIA platform, a sort of Craigslist for spy stuff open to cleared vendors, academics, and the like.

Companies can respond to the query with in a two-page white paper outlining on how they would tackle the problem. If the analyst who put out the request likes the paper, the inventor comes in to demo in the iHUB room face-to-face. During DIA’s second industry outreach event for iHUB, April 12-13, 18 firms debuted a range of products to do technology forecasting, instant translation, and big data analysis on everything from countries to individuals.

Analysts can choose the ones that they like and DIA can fund a limited pilot on the spot. The analyst and contractor then work together to craft a bespoke solution to the analyst’s problem the same way that big companies hire developers to craft apps to fill their needs.

iHUB was established by Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, who took over DIA after Michael Flynn was fired. Bolden, the chief innovation officer, says that agency is constructing a larger room upstairs with a more finished, start-up-made-good feel.

DIA’s iHUB is, of course, just the latest in the many workarounds to the way the Defense Department typically acquires products, which can take years to move through the bureaucratic layers. The Rapid Innovation Fund is another, as is, to a certain extent, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx.Thanks to iHUB, Bolden says, it now takes no more than 88 days to get a request on NeedopeDIA under contract.

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