Innovating in a Secret World…

I had the very exciting opportunity to moderate the London Enterprise Tech Meetup’s event last week: ‘Innovating in a Secret World’ (inspired by Tina Srivastava’s recently released book by the same name). And, I would love to tell you about it.

Unfortunately, I can’t… it’s classified.

Except, no — that’s not how it works. Maybe the secret state isn’t oh-so secret after all. Bob Flores (former CTO of the CIA) did not threaten to kill me if I told anyone what he said. Omar Saad (Head of Strategy & Innovation at the London Metropolitan Police) did not threaten to turn the queen’s guard on me for writing this article.

In fact, the panel of security (both private and government) veterans were hugely open and gave a lot of great insight into their cloak and dagger world.

The evening (at least, it was evening in my part of the world) was kicked off with flash talks from John Randles (CEO of Siren) and Brent Boekestein (CEO of Vintra); an initial glimpse into the kind of innovation occurring in security right now. Vintra is an AI video analytics solution focusing on re-identification, and Siren is an investigative intelligence platform using AI to analyse and identify data relationships for investigation.

Then, I headed up a discussion with a phenomenal panel of experts including: the aforementioned Bob Flores and Omar Saad, author Tina Srivastava, and Nat Puffer (Managing Director of IQT International). Here are some of my main takeaways from the evening:

Innovation flows both ways

The unique challenges that the Secret State faces can be a great catalyst for innovation, and successful transitions by start-ups to the commercial world can lead to significant technology advantages over more mainstream competition. But this transition is not easy, and an attempt to serve both markets can often lead to a failure to succeed in either.

Threading this needle can be incredibly difficult, but in opening the conversation the panel highlighted some great examples where this had been achieved with phenomenal success. Few people for instance know that Oracle started as a secret project in the CIA (Oracle was the project codename). Similarly Palantir was cited as having started in the Intelligence Community before making it’s way to the commercial markets.

This laid the seeds for a great discussion, exploring innovation both from and into this world of shadows and intrigue.

There are cultural differences in government approaches to innovation, between the US and the UK

Bearing in mind that the panel of this LNETM event had guests from both London and across the pond, we were in a good position to examine the differences between UK and US government approaches.

The UK government are perceived as being slightly more reserved when it comes to interacting with earlier stage startups. The veil of secrecy is somewhat harder to break through in the UK, compared to the USA (and that is not to say it is easy there). One problem faced when trying to innovate in the British government is a feeling of uniqueness with their challenges being more distinct than the mainstream, diminishing the value of collaborating with outside sources. Historically startups were seen as an unknown quantity — though this is starting to change, as they have become more deeply linked with innovation.

The US, on the other hand, and particularly through long-term initiatives and entities such as In-Q-Tel, have created structures for getting access to innovation from start-ups — and embracing the risk associated with early-stage technology. The UK by contrast is earlier in this journey, having setup the NSSIF (National Security Strategic Investment Fund) just two years ago (IQT has been established since 1999), but has clearly stated both the need and desire to engage more directly with start-ups and SMEs.

A further issue highlighted with UK Government was that procurements need to avoid any sense of unfair advantage — which is at odds with the start-up focus on establishing huge advantage through differentiation. Again, approaches are evolving that are allowing UK government to contract more easily with SMEs, to assess and benefit from the dramatic pace of change in technology.

So, perhaps the benefits of being a private-sector vendor into the US government are currently greater than their UK equivalents; whether the US government is more appreciative of private innovation, or if its due to deep-seated commercial dynamics, is up for debate.

Beware of your Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property (or ‘IP’) rights are the rights to an idea and the product that comes out of it, conventionally owned by the idea’s founder or inventor. However, when involved in government projects, IP rights get a bit more complicated than that.

One example of a problematic IP rights policy was when DARPA had ideas submitted by the private sector for their FANG project — any ideas submitted under the invitation to collaborate had its intellectual property rights automatically signed over to the government (whether that idea was selected and used was irrelevant). The DARPA leadership had sought to develop a more favourable IP framework, but were constrained due to the confines of broader US Government regulations.

Of course, this is a huge disincentive for the private sector to get involved — why would you risk losing your idea with no guarantee of return? Start-ups need to be careful when working with government to understand any implications for both IP ownership and exploitation. They should also be prepared to negotiate!

The intricacies of sharing (and not sharing) information

IP rights aren’t the only challenge, though. When looking for people to help solve a problem, you need people to understand that problem — how does this work in a world of secrets?

First and foremost, it works by declassifying those things that need not be classified. A great example was given, about when the CIA released the information that they were using Microsoft Office. They were somewhat concerned. But eventually, they came to understand that that information alone couldn’t be used to discern any secrets. In fact, it would only benefit them as private innovators understood better how to assist them. Secondly, analogies, or half-truths, can be used to outline a problem and get past the first barrier, before clearance can be given.

This is very much an issue that the government faces, and needs to get right. Of course, there are genuine secrets that cannot be told to the general public, but it’s a balance that they are still working on.

It’s not just government secrets, we need to worry about either. There’s also the question of whether the government should share publicly the fact that they are working with a company. If this harms the private company in public perception, that’s not good for anyone. As was the tone of this entire event, our panel suggested that collaboration was key: the only way to navigate this is to work with the company, respectfully, to decide what’s best.

Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a pointed effect on some classified work (and this is the case all over the globe, not just in the UK and America) — as WFH became a necessity, some things had to leave classified areas and become declassified. On whether or not that’s a good thing, none of our panelists offered comment. What they did say though, is that it is an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration, and we should take advantage of that.

How to break into the circle of trust…

Aside from using the pandemic-loophole mentioned above, the panel gave some great insider advice on how to break into working within the secrecy of government projects. We’ve discussed declassifying from the inside-out, but how do you go from the outside to in-the-know?

  • Bear in mind that government departments do not have an unlimited pot of cash! Offering a free pilot (or at least a money-back guarantee) could make all the difference in whether someone is willing to take a chance on your solution.
  • Literally ASK. That’s how you get past the secrecy — you ask the people in the know (at events and other public channels); they know what they can and can’t tell you.
  • Think about your IP rights and be careful. Don’t let your idea be taken for nothing.
  • The MetPolice have industry days specifically to link innovation to the police and allow startups access to the people who have the insight they need. Many other organisations have similar innovation days and public ‘calls’ for interest.
  • Make the effort to understand the problems that government projects are facing, so that you can offer a product that can genuinely make a difference.
  • RESEARCH! As soon as you start researching, you will realise that there is a lot more information out there than you would expect. Sites like AFWERX, the NSSIF, the DIU, DARPA, DSTL or SOFWERX are great places to start.

Hopefully for any startups and entrepreneurs looking to break into the secret state, this article has offered some useful pointers. Otherwise, I hope it has been an interesting read.

Please let me end with a note thanking Ian Ellis for the brilliant event as always, with first class panel speakers and flash talk presenters! The afterparty was a great opportunity to network with the audience too.

The LNETM Afterparty — using Toucan for virtual networking

The next LNETM event is on the 22nd March, focusing on ‘Privacy with Impact’… I wouldn’t miss it if I were you.

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