Ben Solomon likes to tell the story of how Siri came to be.
The virtual assistant found in most Apple iOS software — iPhones, Macbooks and more — wasn’t created in the Cupertino tech giant’s offices or labs. It was created down the road through the Department of Defense’s investment arm, DARPA.
They contracted out SRI International to build a virtual assistant that might yield help military commanders with both information overload and office chores. Eventually, Apple took notice of the technology and drew inspiration for Siri from there.
Plain and simple, that’s what Solomon’s latest venture does: find a new commercial home for the innovations crafted within the federal government’s walls.
Meet Fed Tech, a bi-annual cohort incubator that works with 17 federal labs across the country to commercialize federally funded research and development projects. Each lab is assigned an entrepreneur — someone from outside their departments who applies to take on the challenge of commercializing a government research project — and through the seven-week program, each group chats with various potential customers about different business models.
Solomon heads up the program, which was spun out of DC I-Corps project back in July 2013. Each cohort consists of anywhere from 11-20 teams, and they meet once a week for an hour-long lecture on a topic related to technology spinoffs, like patent law. There’s no charge to participate, and Fed Lab doesn’t take equity.
“It’s kind of cool because the federal labs aren’t used to moving at this pace,” Solomon said. “In terms of pivoting really quickly, it’s a whole world that they’re not used to.”
In a 2013 cohort, they had an entrepreneur looking for a way to sell a Department of Homeland Security technology designed to breakdown nerve gas into benign elements. So, instead of wearing hazmat masks, soldiers can rely on athletic wear that can break down the gas elements in a more comfortable way. Now, that group has turned into Grey Matter LLC, a company looking at ways of incorporating the technology into athletic wear.
“We see really neat technologies, things that could be absolute game changers,” he said. “Those are not products (alone). …but getting that to a customer, well, there’s a lot of other things that have to come into it.”
The program, sponsored by MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, a DoD innovation initiative, culminates in a graduation and presentation at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Innovation Lab.
“It’s been a well-kept secret, and the entrepreneurs we talk about get excited about the opportunities that we present from a technology standpoint,” Solomon said. “The labs love it because they have all of this technology that is ready to be commercialized. We’ve been able to put that together, and everyone seems excited to put this together.”
Featured image description: The Lev Interactive team graduates at the Booz Allen Innovation Center. The team is joined by Ben Solomon and serial entrepreneur Bob Smith, an early employee at AOL and who is now lead instructor for Fed Tech. Image courtesy of Fed Tech.