An aerial view of Apple Park in Cupertino, California.

An aerial view of Apple Park in Cupertino, California. Photo by Tayfun CoÅkun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

New DIU head seeks to scale up DOD, Silicon Valley tech partnerships

Pentagon must reassure the startup world by showing it can put new commercial technology into operation, says the new head of the Defense Innovation Unit.

If the U.S. military is to convince more tech firms to work on defense projects, it must move faster to turn good ideas into lucrative programs, says the new chief of the Pentagon’s outreach arm to Silicon Valley.

Doug Beck, who comes to the job after serving as a vice president at Apple, told reporters on Thursday that the Defense Department is learning from the Ukraine conflict, where a small but nimble state is fighting a much larger, better armed opponent. Beck says the Ukrainians’ tactical use of consumer or dual-use technologies—small hobby drones, commercial satellite images, etc.—show how new ideas could be scaled up to deter or defeat a major power.

“What we have to do now is take that capability that has been built and employed for a strategic effect, which means it will be focused on speed and scale to help us to deter major conflict or win if we are forced to fight. And that is what this next phase of DIU is all about,” he said. 

It’s one reason why the Defense Secretary elevated the DIU office in April, so that the DIU director now reports directly to the secretary. It’s one of many steps the Department has taken to show faith and confidence in DIU since former Defense Secretary Ash Carter established the office in 2015. But, said Beck, unlike the Ukrainians, the Defense Department is still struggling not only to acquire new technology but to make sure that it can acquire and then actually use new solutions across larger portions of the military. Taking a new technology or service and rapidly expanding the number of people that can use it is often referred to as scaling in the business world. It’s an area where the Defense Department still struggles, he says. 

“That scale is not fully there,” he said of DOD’s acquisition of tech from startups and other non-traditional defense contractors. “If you compare the volume of investment that was going into the commercial technology providers of some of these technologies that are having such an impact on the battlefield [in Ukraine], it's relatively small numbers,” compared to direct foreign military assistance and weapons like howitzers and rockets.

Beck’s argument was borne out by a July 17 report from government data analysis company Govini, which showed that even in areas of emerging and information technology— areas largely dominated by consumer facing tech companies—traditional defense contractors were continuing to win most of the contract awards. This is in no small part because they were more adept at negotiating the bureaucracy and buying process of the Pentagon. 

Beck said Silicon Valley venture funds and other commercial backers would be more likely to put their own money into technologies that the Defense Department could use if the Pentagon was clearer about what sorts of commercial or dual-use technologies would be relevant to the military and could better forecast the ones most likely to be picked up sooner. 

“If we are able to provide more focus so that it's clear which of those many things from the private sector…are actually strategic and critically relevant,” he said, “ultimately it'd be great if we could do a better job of making things a lot less bumpy on the path to scale…Effectively, then, I think, will unlock an enormous amount of capital that will help all of us to solve our problems.”