San Francisco: The nation's military, in its search for the next surveillance system, bio-terror vaccine or robot warrior, has decided to take a peek into the garage.
Through a programme that recently emerged from an experimental phase, the Defense Department is using some of the nation's top technology investors to help it find innovations from tiny start-up companies, which have not traditionally been a part of the military's vast supply chain.
The programme provides a regular exchange of ideas and periodic meetings between a select group of venture capitalists and dozens of strategists and buyers from the major military and intelligence branches. Government officials talk about their needs, and the investors suggest solutions culled from technology start-ups across the country.
It is in some ways an odd coupling of the historically slow-moving federal agencies and fast-moving investors, who deal in technologies that are no sooner developed than they are threatened with obsolescence.
But the participants argue that the project, called DeVenCI (Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative) brings together two groups that have much to gain from each other and that have had trouble finding easy, efficient ways to work together. Those on the military side of things have adopted the Silicon Valley vernacular to explain the idea of systematically consulting investors to find new technology.
"We're a search engine," said Bob Pohanka, director of DeVenCI, noting that the programme is a chance for military procurement officials to have more intimate contact with investors who make a living scouring laboratories and universities for the latest innovations.
Venture capitalists "have knowledge of emerging technology that may be developed by companies as small as two guys in a garage," Pohanka said. "These are companies that are not involved in the DOD supply chain."
For investors, it is a chance to get closer to a branch of government with vast spending power that is a potential customer for the start-ups they have backed. That can be particularly valuable because the venture capital industry, far from enjoying the success of the dot-com boom, has languished in recent years and is looking for new markets and sales opportunities.
The military is "like a Fortune No.1 company," said E. Rogers Novak Jr., managing director of the venture capital firm Novak Biddle Venture Partners, and one of the investors who consults with the government. "We may get a customer and the DOD gets something that helps them."
The idea of these meetings is not necessarily to short-circuit the usual military procurement process, which usually involves doing business with one of a handful of big companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, DeVenCI officials said. Rather, the idea is that the military buyers will see technology that they can recommend to those massive contractors for new or continuing projects, or, conceivably, that they will sign small initial contracts with start-ups so they can further develop a technology for military use.
The project is in its early stages and there are questions about whether a bureaucratic and careful system built around long-term relationships between the military branches and their contractors can be compatible with the quicker culture of Silicon Valley.
"Everybody is feeling their way through this relationship," Novak said. "The potential is there. The devil is in the details."
There is nothing fundamentally new about the military trying to gain access to cutting-edge technology. For much of the 20th century, it financed and led that development. But that has changed in the last several decades as innovation has started to move at light speed in the private sector.
Since the 11September attacks, the military has reached out more to the private sector, trying to make use of a range of technologies in pursuing security and fighting wars. Some venture capitalists have catered to those demands, creating firms aimed at military and security needs.
On the public sector side, the CIA in 1999 started In-Q-Tel, a venture that identifies and invests in start-ups and technologies whose products could be used in intelligence. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency backs new technology and has helped create many important advances, including the Internet.
What makes DeVenCI unusual, its participants say, is that by bringing together military procurement agents and technology investors, it is creating a kind of brokerage for ideas. But it had humbler beginnings, starting out on more of a special case basis not long after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.
They signed up 11 venture capitalists from 30 applicants to serve two-year terms. These investors are sent hundreds of pages of information, most of it unclassified, about the needs of military agencies. Then the members of the group get together in person, as they did in March in Arlington, Va., with representatives from about 50 procurement agencies for various military branches.
"Most of these companies wouldn't dream of approaching the government because they've heard about a three-year procurement process," Pohanka said. He said he tells the venture capitalists and start-ups that the Defense Department signs 6,000 or more contracts a week with various companies. "There are more than ample opportunities," he said.
But it is not all business, the venture capitalists say. For some, there is a patriotic component, one that sometimes tests their own philosophies about the role of the military.
In 1969, Kevin Fong, a high school student, attended anti-war protests on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto. Now 52 and a managing director with the Mayfield Fund in Menlo Park, he said he believes American soldiers need the best equipment possible. He is one of the new participants in DeVenCI.
"There's a part of me that says the military and conflict are going to happen and you have to be prepared for it," he said, explaining part of the reason for his interest.
But he said his first impulse to help came from a recognition that participation in DeVenCI could be good for business. "When the DeVenCI people approached me, they said the magic words to a V.C.: 'We'll hook you up with buyers,"' Fong said. "How can you resist that?"