9 Ways USG can Engage with U.S. Startups

*This summary with my own additions is drawn from my own experiences as well as those of my colleagues’ during the Obama Administration. They are results of the Secretary’s efforts to connect the capacity of U.S. startups to solve problems of interest to the USG. Results from many of these mechanisms have been transferred into functional bureaus, embassies, and into other offices.

U.S. small businesses and startups find it difficult and confusing to interact with the USG. Startups often do not have the revenue, funding runway, nor staffing capacity to understand or reach out to government that larger businesses do. Often the dynamic enterprises that develop the cutting-edge technologies that could enable the USG to achieve policy goals more effectively, but the interfaces between startups and the federal government can be weak.

Opportunities to apply the technical knowledge of U.S. startups to USG foreign policy goals cover the Presidential priorities, such as nuclear disarmament, food security, global health, and climate change. Sourcing innovative solutions from U.S. startups to support USG policy goals, such as the National Export Initiative, by providing more U.S. small businesses exposure to international markets at early stages in their lifecycle. These efforts implement various priorities of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (printed every four years, it sets institutional priorities and provides strategic guidance as a framework for the most efficient allocation of resources. It provides a blueprint for advancing America’s interests in global security, inclusive economic growth, climate change, accountable governance and freedom for all) and the Secretary’s emphasis on utilizing “smart power,” economic statecraft,” and “whole of society” approaches.

  1. University Student Engineering Team Competitions: The fellowships is a low-cost way to bring expertise into the Department. It can start with expanding direct contact with student teams at universities across the U.S. Direct DoS participation, either as judges or participations, in competition such as the Idea to Products Global Competition and the Annenberg Innovation Lab conference to put DoS issues in direct contact with enthusiastic engineering student teams working on solutions we need. These teams align very well with the Grand Challenge interests in clean water, energy, food, and food security. The “First Way” has already led to the deployment of a multi-lingual Twitter traffic analysis tool called r-Shief (Arabic for “archive”) that has enabled Embassy Islamabad staff to differentiate between sentiment online and in the general media.
  2. Open Challenges: Based on the concept of crowd sourcing, open challenges involve a carefully constructed question that is put before the entire internet community to solicit ideas and solutions to the articulated problem.E/STAS has worked in close partnership with the Bureau of Arms on an “open challenge” workshop called “Can AVC use open challenges to derive ideas that can address arms control transparency regimes, despite the classified and sensitive nature of so much of the information? The challenge was together with Innocentive.
  3. RRTO’s Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI): RRTO or DoD’s Rapid Reaction Technology’s Office administers this program to identify U.S. startups with capabilities that are highly desired by different offices. This program expanded into NASA and into the State Department that have worked from the Office of Geographer and Global Issues to Overseas Building Operations, Diplomatic Security. They selected companies to proceed to an evaluation and to the test phase. Embassies that provided direct input and involvement of the companies proceeded with implementation, which improved energy efficiency of the buildings.
  4. LAUNCH: Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (E/STAS) increased State Department involvement in partnership with NASA, USAID, and Nike with the addition of the Office of Naval Research as a Resource Partner. LAUNCH fostered rapid development of a mix of U.S. and foreign innovators targeting grand challenges of interest. One of the LAUNCH cycle – Beyond Waste sourced innovators around the world with unique and innovative approaches to reducing, converting, and otherwise transforming the mountains of waste produced globally into useful products.
  5. Technology Startup Engagement: E/STAS had established an informal relationship with In-Q-Tel, an organization that forms a bridge with U.S. startups and various USG agencies, which brought numerous startups to the attention of a variety of State Department offices. One interesting startup was Recorded Futures, a startup with capabilities of interest to the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues through the relationship with In-Q-Tel.
  6. S2S (Startups 2 State) Gateway: E/STAS partnership with Startup America connected U.S. startups with embassy officers to searching for solutions to problems identified as strategic to embassy’s goals. Startup America is an independent private-sector alliance intended to dramatically increase the development, prevalence, and success of innovative, high-growth U.S. firms. Startup America’s leadership includes CEO Scott Case, previous founder and CTO of Priceline, and board member Michael Dell, CEo of Dell, inc.
  7. Entrepreneur-In-Residence: Dr. E. William Golglazier, Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary, created the role of Entreprneur-In-Residence (EIR) in his office to manage the continued engagement with the U.S. startup to serve as a focal point for innovation discussion that progress beyond the preliminary how-to discussions concrete implementation.
  8. Presidential Management Fellows: The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program is administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to serve for two years in the following agencies. In 2018, one of the PMFs designed a “Better Government Movement” and appointed “Ad Hoc Sherpas” to lead a series of design thinking initiatives and open studio sessions to offer specific subject matter expertise in areas like Human-Centered Design, Lean Startup, Agile, change management, and pitch coaching to Design Challenge teams.
  9. The Office of Global Partnership: The Office of Global Partnerships is previously a Secretary’s Office is main portal to which each and every office of the State Dept. conducts partnerships with. They used to hold hackathons, Blockchain Central event, and thinking exercises. Certainly one of the few offices at State using the word “impact” and has an active partnership with Concordia Summit and USAID for public-private partnership for social impact. Every partnership and gift also is vetted through this office. They offer trainings, events, and solutions to which each office and leverage the public-private partnerships solutions creatively to each of the foreign policy priorities.

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