At the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), leaders rely on crafting problem statements, quick prototyping, and commercial competition to fuel mission critical innovation, Director of Strategic Engagement Mike Madsen explained at the July 15 FCW DoD Cloud Workshop.

“The challenge is, how do we get these technologies that are being developed in the commercial world … back into the department?” Madsen said of DIU’s mission. The agency’s approach begins with what Madsen called the “demand side.”

DIU will develop a problem statement – instead of a requirements document – on what it’s looking to solve with the new tech. Usually about half a page long, according to Madsen, the problem statement is a short and straightforward description of what the agency hopes to overcome.

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“What we found is this really gets down to the heart of the issue,” Madsen said. “We get away from a symptom of a problem. We get away from a preconceived notion of a problem. We get away from a preconceived solution.”

At the same time, Madsen said, a commercial engagement team will work within the commercial ecosystem of venture capital firms and tech companies to find the community of private sector partners that can solve the problem. DIU will post the solicitation and take proposals for about two weeks before it culls down the list to up to five finalists, with the help of its DoD partner for the project, and begin the process of prototype contracting.

DIU, the finalists, and the DoD partner will spend one to two years prototyping the solution. “The value of this is being able to put a prototype into the end user’s hands very early, so if there’s any adjustments needed, they can do that right away,” Madsen explained.

He said that a benefit of this approach is the negotiable elements throughout the contracting process that allow non-traditional companies and start-ups to work with DoD. “Intellectual property is the lifeblood of a lot of these startup companies,” Madsen offered as an example, “the ability to negotiate those rights is critical.”

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.