US Military Taps into Innovations in Startup Tech World

Capella Space may look like just another Silicon Valley technology startup, with people coding at their desk. But just a year old, Capella has a unique customer: the U.S. military. 

“We like to work with the government because we think we can help the government save money, bring a capability that doesn’t exist, and through that hopefully save some lives,” said Payam Banazadeh, co-founder and chief executive officer of Capella Space. 

An immigrant from Iran, Banazadeh now builds a special kind of satellite that allows its user to take imagery, even through clouds and at night.  What makes it unique is its size.  It is just a bit bigger than a shoebox. 

“They’ve (military) had this for a very long time.  In fact, this is a military type technology. The problem is the satellites that the military uses are massive.  They’re the size of a school bus,” Banazadeh explained.

Unlike the military, Capella Space can build satellites that are smaller, cheaper and faster than traditional military satellites.  The military can now quickly become one of Capella Space’s customers for its Satellite data through a new group under the U.S. Department of Defense, called Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx. 

“The Department of Defense is the world’s largest bureaucracy.  It has 3 million members of it, both military and civilian. In any large organization, things just take longer to do and for certain things that makes a lot of sense,” said Raj Shah, managing partner of DIUx. 

“There are some things that are of a secret nature and must be protected. And of course, everything that our soldiers touch could have life or death implications,” explained Shah. 

As a result, the military tends to be risk averse, and in many cases, will only adopt technology when it is perfect.  However, by that time, the technology is often already outdated. 

The culture in Silicon Valley and many other tech startup ecosystems is the opposite, where risk and speed drives innovation. 

“Have this minimal viable product that you launch really quickly into the market and learn about it and iterate and try to do this as quickly as possible,” said Banazadeh. 

At the Milken Institute Gobal Conference recently, experts from Silicon Valley and the military emphasized the importance of keeping up with technology by working with innovative startup companies. 

“As a broad statement, government systems are very poorly secured.  As a broad statement, government systems are not using the latest forms of operating systems, encryptions and mechanisms,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. 

“Given the speed at which technology is advancing, that if we don’t accept less than a 101% solution, we’re going to fall yet further behind,” said Norton Schwartz, former chief of staff, U.S. Air Force and president and CEO, Business Executives for National Security. 

As the most recent global cyber attack proves, it is a constant race to stay ahead of threats.

With an office in Silicon Valley and in several other tech hubs across the U.S., the mission of DIUx is to bridge the different cultures of tech startups and the U.S. military to meet national security needs. 

Housed in Silicon Valley, the mission of DIUx is to bridge the different cultures of tech startups and the U.S. military to meet national security needs. 

“Technology is always changing and if you have only legacy equipment, that actually gives the bad guys more time to figure out what the vulnerabilities are. If we’re constantly evolving, it’s a cat and mouse game between attackers and defenders and we want to be on the winning side of that,” said Shah. 

It starts with DIUx removing much of the paperwork and bureaucracy traditionally involved with having the military as a customer.  Since its inception 18 months ago, DIUx has worked with more than 30 tech companies from across the U.S. and the globe. The technology ranges from robot sailboats to small satellites.   

“The innovative ecosystems will be very good at certain types of technologies and products and we should play to their strength. They’re not the answer to everything. We don’t expect the next company out here to build the next fighter jet. But they may build some of the software that sits on it,” said Shah.

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