Reginald Brothers is the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for science and technology, but on April 29, speaking in a dimly lit auditorium in Menlo Park, California, the city where Facebook is headquartered, he channeled his inner-entrepreneur and pitched a crowd of dozens of techies.
"While we are still getting innovation from large industry and from federally funded laboratories … we also realize that there's a tremendous group of creative people who are represented by folks like yourselves," said Brothers, a man with the kind of serious government demeanor that is uncommon in the Bay Area. "You're the people who we have not necessarily done a good job sharing what our challenges are, sharing what our needs are, sharing who our points of contacts are and also sharing how our business practices can meet the kind of tempo that you have."
But as Brothers finished his point, the crowd began to laugh. The computer, projector and PowerPoint presentation behind him were starting to shut down. It wasn't a planned malfunction, but it drove his point home: DHS needs Silicon Valley's help to give the government a jolt of innovation and advance its technological capabilities.
"What we've learned during the last several months is most of you don't know what DHS does," said Douglas Maughan, the senior executive of DHS's Silicon Valley Innovation Program, an initiative launched in 2015 to help DHS leverage the tech industry's expertise. "One of the No. 1 goals of our innovation program is to educate the innovation community on our problems."
Throughout the day, a dozen government officials from both DHS and Customs and Border Protection took the stage, voicing their needs to the tech crowd before them. Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP's Office of Trade, said she needs a way to better detect counterfeit goods as they enter the country. Her office is great at stopping knock-off luxury bags and high-end sneakers but needs helping with other products, including tech gizmos. Damian Montes, director of the canine training program within CBP's Office of Training and Development, said he needs tech that can help his agents keep their canines from overheating when they work immigration checkpoints, sniffing for unwanted drugs and agriculture. And Lothar Eckardt, a director of CBP's Air and Marine Operations, said he needs a system that will help his helicopter pilots detect and avoid crashing into unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones.
"It's our understanding that for entrepreneurs the most important thing for you is the first customer," Maughan said. "We want to be your first customer."
DHS has a lot to gain from Silicon Valley, but the department's officials believe they have just as much to offer. As part of this new initiative, DHS is willing to pay startups up to $800,000 to use their technology. DHS has no plans to invest in or take equity in the companies that it works with.
"We don't want to own what you're developing and producing," Maughan said. "We want to be customers. We're willing to buy."
That's a foreign concept for tech entrepreneurs, who are used to sharing ownership of their companies with the Bay Area's countless venture capitalists. Just as foreign is the idea of partnering with government. Startups are used to working fast and breaking things – a concept made famous here by Facebook – and around Silicon Valley, many believe government is incapable of that. DHS is aware of the notion and made it a point to keep pace stride for stride with the tech industry.
The typical government contract can take nine to 12 months to be awarded, but under the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, DHS is promising entrepreneurs that the "award timeframe estimate is 30 days," according to a slide shown. Thus far, DHS has listened to pitches from nine startups and awarded funding to two of them, with one receiving the money within two weeks, a point highlighted in DHS's PowerPoint presentation in bold red font: "As fast as 10 days!"
DHS is making the process similar to what entrepreneurs already go through. Entrepreneurs come in and have 15 minutes to pitch a room of DHS officials. DHS then gets 15 minutes to question the techies. If DHS likes what it sees, it'll award a contract worth between $50,000 and $200,000. The startup then has three to six months to deliver a demo prototype. After that, there are three more phases where startups can get similar funding. All in all, it's a process that can go on for 24 months, but in keeping with the pace promise, DHS is willing to move through it all in as fast as 12 months.
"That is government innovation that we've never seen before," Maughan said.
DHS's Silicon Valley Innovation Program is in its early days, but so far the agency has received a warm welcome from tech industry entrepreneurs. Don Bogue, an entrepreneur who attended the event, said he plans on telling his peers about the program as well as pitching DHS on his own technology, which can scan a person's subdermal fingerprint.
"I think DHS is trying. They're trying to overcome this sense that you got to have some sort of secret code just to get into their building," said Bogue, CEO of Compact Imaging, which is based a short walk from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. "They're doing a pretty good job presenting an open door to entrepreneurs and small companies."
DHS is starting with Silicon Valley, but the ultimate goal is to set up similar shops around the U.S., near other tech hubs like Austin, Boston and North Carolina's Research Triangle, getting startups the money they need to get their ideas off the ground and into the hands of DHS.
"We want a relationship with the kind people whose job it is to predict and make the future," said Kevin McAleenan, Customs and Border Protection's deputy commissioner.