Protection Innovation Unit explores Pacific Northwest’s nationwide safety tech frontier

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Mike Madsen, the Defense Innovation Unit’s acting director, talks at a Seattle workshop. (NSIN via Twitter)

If space is the next frontier for national security, then the Pacific Northwest may well be the new frontier for that next frontier.

That’s the word from Steve “Bucky” Butow, an Air Force brigadier general who is now director of the space portfolio at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“I really think that the best news story out of the Pacific Northwest is just how impactful this region is in the new space economy,” Butow told GeekWire. “It’s not widely recognized, but I think that’s going to be changing here in the near future.”

Butow and his teammates at the DIU got an on-the-ground look at Seattle’s tech frontier this week during a series of meetings and site visits in the region. Among the tour’s highlights were meetings with executives at Amazon and Microsoft (which just won contracts to help build the Pentagon’s Hybrid Space Architecture), a roadshow workshop with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors, and a stopover at SpaceX’s satellite facility in Redmond, Wash.

Steve “Bucky” Butow (DIU Photo)

This wasn’t the first Pacific Northwest meet-up for the Defense Innovation Unit, which doles out tens of millions of dollars to support commercial innovations with potential national security applications. But the field trip comes amid an upswing in the attention given to military tech.

“This is a really critical decade,” Johannes Schonberg, program director for the National Security Innovation Network’s Mission Acceleration Centers, told attendees at Tuesday’s regional roadshow in downtown Seattle. “The Pacific Northwest, I think, plays a really critical role.”

Historically, Boeing has been the leading player for that role. But today, there’s a much larger cast of characters. At the roadshow, DIU representatives said $24.5 million in grants have been awarded so far to Washington state ventures for prototype development, with additional Pentagon funds going toward production.

On the space front, there’s Amazon Web Services and Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite effort, Microsoft and its partnership with SpaceX for Azure cloud services, Xplore, BlackSky, New Frontier Aerospace and Tethers Unlimited.

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Space isn’t the Northwest’s only tech frontier: DIU has also provided grants to the Echodyne radar venture, Avalanche Energy and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., a company called Freefly Systems that builds drones for extreme environments, Pure Watercraft and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

“We’re really good at spending other people’s money,” Butow joked.

Strategic Robotic Systems is a standout: The Redmond-based company got in on an initial $600,000 grant to develop a prototype underwater robotic vehicle that could help out with explosive ordnance disposal. That led to a U.S. Navy procurement order for the robots that could be worth as much as $20.6 million.

Winning a Pentagon grant can provide a longer-term payoff by building investors’ confidence in a venture. For example, DIU awarded a $2 million contract to Redmond-based Xplore last year to accelerate progress on that company’s satellite platform. A few months later, Xplore reported bringing in a total of $16.2 million in venture capital and contracts.

DIU’s acting director, Mike Madsen, told attendees at this week’s roadshow that his office is actually “three organizations in one”:

  • The core DIU organization, which aims to “leverage fully baked commercial technology” for the Defense Department.
  • National Security Innovation Capital, which focuses on hardware investments on the frontiers of autonomy, communications, power, sensors and space.
  • And the National Security Innovation Network, which brings together public and private organizations working on the tech frontier.

“We see it as the evolution of the triangle of academia, industry and government that birthed not only Silicon Valley, but the tech hubs around the country, much like Seattle, as well as the collection of non-traditional companies where leading-edge development is taking place,” Madsen said.

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The next challenge is to get traditional and non-traditional companies working together on the technologies that the Pentagon will need in the years ahead.

“We’re figuring out ways to work alongside the acquisition organizations earlier in the process, to help figure out how we can plug commercial technology in to the major defense systems more smoothly than we have been previously,” said Cherissa Tamayori, DIU’s director of acquisition. “That could often require integration into some of the major platforms owned by the primes. So that’s something we’re tackling. It’s a hard problem.”

Whatever DIU is doing, it seems to be working, at least according to members of Congress who want to increase its budget. “DIU’s work should be expanding, not shrinking,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said during a markup session in June.

Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, agrees that DIU should be doing more — particularly in communities that are off the beaten track for tech.

Innovations “don’t just come from Silicon Valley,” he said at June’s session. “They don’t just come from Bellevue. They come from all over the country, and I think it is appropriate to encourage DIU to find those.”

To widen the net, DIU and the National Security Innovation Network are expanding their nationwide network of innovation centers, with the Pacific Northwest Mission Acceleration Center serving as a model.

This won’t be the last time DIU pays a visit to Seattle.

“I’ll give you something newsworthy, just as a teaser,” Butow said. “Every year, we partner with the Space Force and the Air Force Research Lab to produce the State of the Space Industrial Base Report. And when we do our workshop in 2023, we’re planning to do a regional breakout here in Seattle. … We need to do more to let the nation know how valuable the commercial base is up here.”

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