Tech Matchmaker Ignites Sparks Between Entrepreneurs and Government

"Technology itself is not valuable unless it solves a real problem."

Federal research programs and labs spend billions of dollars a year inventing new technologies that don’t always make it to the commercial market. A program called Fed Tech is hoping to change that, by helping the private sector adapt federal research for consumer use.

Launched in 2013, the program pairs innovations in federal labs with entrepreneurs to bring that tech to consumers. Some teams even end up forming startups. To learn more about its process, we spoke with its founder Ben Solomon. Solomon has always been interested in defense technologies but was never a technical person himself, so he found a way for people like him to become tech entrepreneurs with somebody else’s technology.

GovernmentCIO Magazine: How was Fed Tech started?

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Ben Solomon: We started as part of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Program. NSF funds about $7 billion a year in research, so the program takes NSF-funded research teams through customer interviews and business model development around the technology to find a commercial use for it. We were part of a second round of grants where NSF funded a regional program called DC I-Corps.

Technology itself is not valuable unless it solves a real problem, so the program is designed to figure out what that real problem is. Within the DC I-Corps community, we saw this really big opportunity; across all of the labs in government and R&D programs, research funding reaches $140 billion a year. We wanted to find a way to work with all those other sources of technology.

What I ended up building was a program that we now call Fed Tech. We curate technologies and inventors from labs across the country, and pair those opportunities with entrepreneurs. They go through a cohort similar to I-Corps, but with more twists that I think are more suited toward starting a company around federal IT.

GCIO Mag: What’s the overall problem you’re trying to solve, and how?

Solomon: There are so many technologies out there that get started with government funding that might be a huge commercial opportunity, but the marketplace doesn’t work terrifically well. Some of the best entrepreneurs in the world are sometimes scared to interact with government labs because it’s challenging. Government doesn’t always work as fast as industry wants it to, and isn’t terribly good at alerting the outside world about how much technology there is to form new companies around.

Think about all the technology we interact with every day that started off with the Defense Department or government investments, things like GPS, lithium batteries, and microprocessors. The labs themselves are not really in the business of trying to take a technology and have it used in a commercial setting, even though they all see the value.

So this process of licensing the technology is the way to do it, and that’s where industry becomes a partner. We play the role of pulling the tech out of the labs and being the intermediary between these two groups.

GCIO Mag: How many labs do you work with, and how do you connect with them?

Solomon: We have 20 to 25 labs that we work with now, so lots of that is just meeting people at conferences. We also have people reaching out pretty often and we’re starting to get a little more buzz. At first, we were calling the labs and trying to convince them to let other people work with their intellectual property, but since then, the labs love it.

It’s a service they want to be doing; they just don’t usually have the time to do it. You have about 150,000 patents in the federal system that are owned by the government that entrepreneurs can license, so you’re drowning in technologies, from the labs’ perspective.

GCIO Mag: What do you look for in entrepreneurs and how do you find them?

Solomon: Our perfect candidate for one of our cohorts is somebody that is really interested in technology and in starting a tech company, but may not have a great technical idea or access to a team of tech or product people. We work with graduate students from surrounding universities, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship program of Ph.D.-level researchers and with local meet-up groups and alumni associations. We try to find these people everywhere we can, and then we build teams around the technologies.  

GCIO Mag: So what is the process like for entrepreneurs?

Solomon: So we’re starting our biggest cohort yet on Sept. 19. Right now, we’re doing our matchmaking process. We have 30 or 40 entrepreneurs that we’re working with, and we’re pairing them with all of our tech partners. I have a list of about 20 technologies that we’ve curated from our lab partners and done some initial due diligence on.

We’ll form about 12 to 15 startup teams that will get together at the September cohort to learn how to do customer interviews and form a business model. Over the next two months, they will interview anywhere from 50 to 100 customers and build a model around their technology. For example, they’ll talk users and manufacturers of the specific technology, and to competitors operating in the same space. After some feedback meetings and mapping out what the market looks like, the teams will present what they’ve learned on Nov. 28.

GCIO Mag: What happens after Nov. 28?

Solomon: Usually, we get about half of the teams that are going to try to start companies post-cohort. Our last cohort in the spring had 11 teams and roughly half of them wanted to build a business. Then, it’s a more complex situation in terms of building a real venture, finding funding and acting less like a team and more like a real startup.

So far, we’ve had about eight or 10 ventures come out of the program since we started back in 2014. A couple of them have had some cool success stories where they’ve gone on to raise additional money.

GCIO Mag: Is there a specific case study you want to highlight?

Solomon: One of my favorite stories is with a Naval Research Lab chemical-biology material that was initially developed for a fabric coating that could break down nerve gas. Instead of troops having to wear full body HAZMAT suites in the desert, they could use this coating on their regular uniform. It’s super cool technology that had lots of money put into it but was sort of stuck on the shelf, and our entrepreneur (Tommy Luginbill) that we paired with was interested in what else this fabric coating could be used for.

He talked to people at Under Armour and air filtration manufacturers and ultimately ended up finding a use case within the Homeland Security Department. Rather than soldiers, it would be used for the first responder community. He licensed the technology and built the company Grey Matter, which was recently a finalist in big chem-bio challenge, and has been able to raise enough money to keep the technology moving.

GCIO Mag: Do you see a certain trend in terms of tech coming out of the labs?

Solomon: Government is probably not going to ever be a leader in areas like consumer-facing apps and software—that’s just not what government labs do. We work a lot with military medical research and with the National Institutes of Health for medical devices, and with the National Security Agency for cybersecurity. Also, battery technology and robotics are another area government is always doing really cutting-edge work in.

GCIO Mag: What plans do you have for Fed Tech in the future?

Solomon: Thanks to some of our sponsorship, especially from DOD’s MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, we’re going to be growing a lot in the next year or so. We’re hopefully going to be running way bigger and better cohorts, and eventually, I want to have cohorts running across the country, especially California. I want to evolve into being a premier accelerator for spinning out research technology work, to where we’re producing companies that are really cool and competitive to the great venture ecosystem. We’re on our way there.  

GCIO Mag: How can those interested participate or learn more?

Solomon: You can fill out a form on our website. We’re going to be recruiting for multiple cohorts in the future, so anybody that is interested in hearing more about the program, definitely reach out. What we offer in the range of cohorts is tremendous professional development, and on the other end, you might actually get your next gig out of it.

The answers have been edited for clarity.

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