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Building a Bridge to Industry With DIU

“We simply must be able to capitalize on the incredible power that is resident in our commercial technology sector,” Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Director Doug Beck said during a discussion with…
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Matthew Sablan / November 03, 2023

Building a Bridge to Industry With DIU

“We simply must be able to capitalize on the incredible power that is resident in our commercial technology sector,” Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Director Doug Beck said during a discussion with DAU President Jim Woolsey. “The capability to harness the best of technology is how America deters and wins wars.”  

Beck is also the Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense on Technology Innovation, Competition and Strategic Impact, and a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserves. He employs his experience from his time in government, industry and uniform to help bridge the gap between DoD and industry. 

Beck joined Woolsey for an On Acquisition Webinar to discuss how DIU is aligning and building a national innovation force and driving DoD’s acceleration of commercial technology with the focus, speed and scale necessary to deter major conflict or win if forced to fight.  

“One of the biggest competitive advantages that our country has is a world class innovation ecosystem,” Woolsey said. The United States provides legal protection for innovators, consumers and government and incentivizes innovation through financial rewards. DoD is finding new ways to use America’s innovation ecosystem to improve standards of living and increase support for the warfighter. DAU has been hosting discussions to forward this conversation, and DIU is one of DAU’s most trusted partners in helping government build a bridge with industry, weighing risks and rewards when working in tandem and determining how to use government’s competitive advantage. See previous DAU discussions about innovation by viewing previous On Acquisition discussions. 

DIU changed the conversation when it was established in 2015, and now through partnering with DAU and industry, it will continue to impact how DoD innovates with industry. 

The Essence of DIU 

DIU is proving that DoD can bring industry and acquisition together to solve real military problems while delivering prototypes to the warfighter in weeks, not months or years.  

DIU demonstrates DoD could “take a real military problem, something concrete that needed to be solved, and a commercial or commercially derived technology [and bring them] together,” Beck said. They have logged more than 60 successes during its existence. 

Many of the advances DIU supports won’t come online for years, but others can be accelerated. “This is a whole-of-government effort,” Beck said. “It’s going to take time. We don’t have that time. We have to go much more quickly… and that’s why commercial technology is critical.” It is more than speed; industry also produces capabilities faster than DoD can do alone.  

DIU has evolved over the years, beginning as a small organization working to connect the commercial sector with existing support opportunities within government. In time, DIU grew in size and mission, proving to be a problem solver, able to develop solutions in weeks that had previously taken months or years to develop. By working with new innovators, DIU was able to narrow critical gaps to reduce risk. These successes, Beck explained, have opened the door to DIU’s next chapter supporting the Secretary of Defense. “DIU is that funnel for commercial and commercially derived technology into the department… which sits alongside our more bespoke solutions that might be developed in a laboratory or that the Department is really driving the development of that technology,” he said. According to Beck, moving forward, DIU will be focusing on delivering and scaling technologies to fill critical operational capabilities gaps to “deter major conflict or win if forced to fight… where the metrics shifts from how many meetings to how many prototypes.” This focus is what Beck defines as “DIU 3.0.” 

“Imitation is flattery,” Woolsey said, citing several similar innovation-focused organizations that have stood up at the Service-level since DIU’s creation. In particular, these organizations are trying to use what DIU has learned: “building bridges or knocking down walls,” Woolsey said. “DIU has raised the bar. The metric isn’t just that we got a thing… but are we actually changing the way we fight the fight or deter the fight.” 

Embedding Expertise and Demonstrating Strategic Impact 

Beck said that DIU will now report directly to the Secretary of Defense, allowing the organization to have a voice at the table to break down barriers and bring capabilities forward. DIU’s capabilities demonstrate DoD’s commitment and send signals to industry, the Services, other government agencies and Congress about how serious DoD is in terms of building bridges and delivering capabilities. 

In order to scale, DIU will grow its connections to DoD and government partners. There already is a strong link to industry. Beck described DIU’s current relationship with government as “small, but mighty,” and he wants DIU’s interactions to grow in scale. One area they are hoping to find success is by embedding throughout DoD. 

DAU and DIU have found success embedding experts within the Services and workforce, including DAU’s embeds during Operation Warp Speed and DIU’s embedded personnel supporting the Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s new Joint Mission Accelerator Directorate. Learn more about DIU’s expansion to support a variety of DoD organizations. 

“It’s all about figuring out where commercial technology can add the most value… and where we can add that value with the most leverage,” Beck said. DIU’s analysis will consider the strategic impact and where DIU is most uniquely positioned to make a difference. 

It is part of a broad community of innovators across DoD. One task the Secretary has asked DIU to do is transform this community into a more cohesive one that shares synergies and coordinates, including helping create infrastructure to allow DoD to better communicate with industry. 

Conflict in Ukraine 

“Ukraine reminds all of us that we are moving with speed and mass,” Beck said, pointing to critical lessons learned from Ukraine and calling them “three big yesses and a not yet.”  

The first “yes” to come out of Ukraine is the role of commercial technology, notably the use of drones, in targeting data and space technology. The second “yes” was learning that existing commercial technology is often easier to acquire than developing a Program of Record quickly. The third "yes” highlighted the importance of talent and solving problems within the command that have not yet been investigated.  

The “not yet” refers to the fact that for capabilities to achieve the necessary effects DoD requires, many of these solutions need to be able to scale. “We need to get to that point,” Beck said, “both because we need it for the strategic impact, but those tech providers need it too or there is no return on investment for them.” 

The conflict in Ukraine also helped demonstrate how to motivate the government workforce. “We need to be the disruptor, not the disruptee,” Beck said. He agreed that the United States military was never likely to be as “hidebound” and unadaptable as Russian forces have proven to be. 

“The most innovative place I’ve ever worked in my life is with my uniform on,” Beck said. “I would also say the least innovative place that I’ve ever worked in my life is also with my uniform on.” 

American adaptability has consistently proven to be a strength for the armed forces, and innovating new ways of warfare will continue that tradition. “At the speed of war today… we aren’t going to have the time we had between Pearl Harbor and Midway,” Beck said. 

The Future of DIU: Experts, Capabilities, Technology and Partners 

One of the drivers of change and innovation now is artificial intelligence (AI), and it will have unknown impacts on the way people learn, work and fight. “We need to get educated on what machine learning can do,” Beck said, warning that true AI is still far off.  

“We’ve got to be very good at understanding the cutting edge,” Beck said. DoD must advance using technologies like AI and connect them with more than just policy, tactics and other emerging technologies. They must also be developed and deployed in accordance with America’s values without letting AI shape “who we are,” Beck said. DAU is one of DoD’s leading organizations in AI training; visit DAU Media for training opportunities. 

According to Beck, “We can’t allow ourselves to be afraid of either the potential or the risks of emerging technologies like AI. Doing that is all about ensuring we’ve got the talent on board, the experts as well as the base level of understanding from everybody else.” 

“Talent is at the heart of everything we do in the innovation space,” Beck said. The acquisition workforce is growing its talent pool through new programs, career paths and available training. DoD is also working to find ways to expand the base level of knowledge of technology. Finally, retention is an increasingly important goal for DoD. Partnership is another area Beck addressed, saying that “we have to get better at activating that alumni community from the Department as well.” 

Learn more about the difference between risk and uncertainty, what DAU and DIU offer, and the history of DIU by listening to the full discussion. 

On Acq banner background Matthew Sablan