"Government innovation. I don't think you've seen those two words paired together," Melissa Ho, managing director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Silicon Valley Innovation Program, told a crowd of eager listeners from the tech industry at a conference held at SRI International in Menlo Park on July 29.
"We actually are interested in partnering with the tech community," she said.
Government, in the form of the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, is seeking to spur its technological capabilities by acting like a venture capitalist, looking to invest in early-stage startups that are developing products it could use in supporting national security.
Like a venture capitalist, the program is looking for early-stage startup companies and seeking to give them funding, feedback and a contract. Unlike a venture capitalist, presenters said, the department won't ask for equity in the company.
"We want to help you," said Ari Schuler, director of analytics integration at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "We want to test the heck out of your stuff."
Interested parties fill out an application, and then, if selected, are invited to give a 15-minute pitch. They can know as soon as that day whether their idea will be funded, Ms. Ho said.
The program has four steps, each of which lasts three to six months and comes with a payment of $50,000 to $200,000. First, contract recipients must present a proof of concept, then demonstrate a pilot-ready prototype. The third and fourth steps involve testing the prototype in different scenarios.
The program is about a year old, and has so far yielded about five government contracts for companies, representatives said. The program has clear rules about how intellectual property rights will be managed.
"The person who created it has ownership," said Rosemary James, from the department's general counsel office. "The government gets a license under most cases."
At the conference, representatives from the department issued new calls for projects related to small unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, and ways to improve screening for airport passengers crossing international borders.
Previous calls have included wearable technologies for K9 dogs and biometric technologies to quickly and accurately screen people crossing borders.
In May, Menlo Park was said to be the city with the highest number of drones registered for commercial purposes in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).