MITRE: A Matchmaker for Startups and Government

January 2020
Topics: Partnership, Innovation
Acceleration is the foundation of MITRE’s partnership with innovation centers, by matching startup technology companies with government agencies to enable new solutions. MassChallenge, with our support, launched a new Safety & Security track in 2019.
Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge against sky at dusk

The current pace of technology is moving fast—both for the United States and our adversaries.

Many of the fastest-moving technologies come from small, innovative startup companies, and government agencies would like to access them. But the traditional government acquisition process is a challenge for both the agencies and the startups.

To the startups, the process is like entering a maze. Where to even begin? And for the federal agencies, choosing the right startups is equally confusing.

“Government needs quick access to innovative solutions,” says Russ Graves, MITRE's Bridging Innovation director. He says many agencies are eager to work with startups. “But which ones?

"We’ve found a good place to begin is with companies developing commercial products or technologies that, with a few changes, may be useful to the government.

“It can be a tool to help create a new solution. Or a product—anything from ‘smart’ clothing for warfighters to a new healthcare mobile application. But it’s tough for a startup to know what the government needs and how to cut through the bureaucracy to reach them.”

According to Dave Moody, director of strategic development and a champion of Bridging Innovation, that’s where MITRE and our partners add a great deal of value. “We’re matchmakers. Startups learn quickly that were working from a non-profit, conflict-of-interest-free position. Our only motive is to advance our mission to solve problems for a safer world.”

Since 2013, MITRE’s Bridging Innovation team has become deeply involved with the innovation community, starting in Massachusetts and then expanding outward. We have been working with MassChallenge, an international startup accelerator based in Boston’s Seaport, including leasing office space so our employees serve as a resource on site.

We do the same with MassRobotics. The organization provides entrepreneurs from robotics and related automation startups with the workspace and resources they need to develop, prototype, test, and commercialize their products and solutions.

In less than 10 years, MassChallenge has made remarkable progress: supporting 2,344 alumni startups, with those startups raising over $5 Billion in funding and creating 136,000 jobs. MassChallenge awards cash prizes to early-stage startups to advance their ideas, plus provides workspace and guidance about managing everything from finances to marketing. MITRE offers employee mentors, access to our labs, connections to our research, and workshops.

“From our perspective, MITRE is leading the way in being the bridge between the innovation ecosystem and the government community,” says Christian Melton, senior partnerships manager and safety & security lead at MassChallenge.

The Safety & Security Track: From the Back of a Napkin to Reality   

MassChallenge has a number of industry-focused vertical program accelerator tracks, including health technology, and financial/technology. Over time, MITRE and MassChallenge discussed ways to focus on solutions for government challenges.

“One day, Charlie Benway [MITRE’s original Massachusetts Innovation Bridging Director], Russ, and I were brainstorming on a napkin with members of the MassChallenge team,” Moody says. “And in less than a year, with the help of MITRE, BAE Systems, Draper Labs, and National Security Innovation Network, MassChallenge stood up a brand-new 'Safety & Security' accelerator for the federal government.”

While we've worked with MassChallenge for the benefit of our broad sponsor base for some time, the new accelerator’s scope is narrower, attracting keen interest from our defense and cybersecurity sponsors. Now, of the 120+ startups that MassChallenge sources each year during its flagship Boston accelerator program, approximately 20 will be part of the Safety & Security track.

“MITRE has been a critical component in helping stand up the Safety & Security track,” Melton says. “They not only provided expertise and resources for the startups, but also made the connections and helped remove roadblocks.”  

The Department of Defense National Security Innovation Network is a major sponsor of the new accelerator. And MITRE encouraged other partners and sponsors to get involved.

“We asked BAE Systems to sponsor a challenge with us,” Graves says. “And acquisition programs from Hanscom Air Force Base also provided challenge problems for the startups to work on, and senior leaders participated as judges.”

When it comes to the challenge statements from sponsors, Marissa McCoy, chief of staff for our cyber operations portfolio, encourages sponsors not to be too prescriptive about the solution.

“A startup may come back with something you never imagined, but it’s the perfect solution," she says. "Since the speed and cost are dramatically lower than the traditional acquisition process, you can take a calculated risk.”

Quick, Inexpensive, and Innovative Solutions

Following are a few solutions the Bridging Innovation team brought to our sponsors by working with partners like MassChallenge and MassRobotics:  

  • Cleo Robotics is a MassChallenge alum and now MassRobotics resident. The Cleo Drone is a compact and rugged unmanned aerial vehicle designed specifically for safe operation indoors and in confined spaces for reconnaissance and inspections. MITRE introduced Cleo to military special forces customers who recently purchased multiple drones to test in hard-to-navigate, unfriendly environments.
  • Pison met the MITRE team through MassRobotics. Pison applies technologies to help individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease). We introduced them to a variety of federal missions and use cases for their technology and showed them how to apply for financing that doesn’t require the sale of company shares. That way, they can work on government use cases, but still retain their focus on helping people with ALS. In addition to contracts with Google, Microsoft, and Bose, they’ve secured significant government contracts and are developing solutions for multiple federal agencies. 
  • SciArt Software helps engineers design parts faster, cheaper and smarter. Our innovation bridging staff met SciArt through mutual participation in the Starburst+TechStars Space Accelerator in Los Angeles and introduced them to MITRE researchers. We now have access to an early version of the software and will be beta testing an upcoming thermal module during 2020. Both will be used to conduct research regarding new uses of topology optimization software. 

Keeping an Eye on Future Innovations

We also partner with other innovation organizations, such as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s cybersecurity advisory panel, the Massachusetts Military Asset Task Force, Air Force Accelerator powered by TechStars, and academic incubators like Harvard I-Labs, MIT Engine, and UMass Lowell Innovation Hub.

Moody says, “Even though we have strong Massachusetts connections, we’ve scaled innovation bridging far beyond New England. Now, teams in our Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Dayton, and San Antonio offices are working with incubators and accelerators.

“MITRE has always done an outstanding job of working with industry and academia to look over the technology horizon for our sponsors. But by being a bridge between startups and government, we’re discovering whole new levels of ideas and opportunities that may help our sponsors three to five years ahead.” 

—by Bill Eidson

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Experimentation and Research.

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