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Catalyst Year-In-Review

May 25, 2021
Scott Tait


The United States is a world leader in innovation, research, and technology, but risks losing its national security edge to rising competitors. The Catalyst initiative, which launched in 2019, aims to drive investment in, and adoption of, security innovations by strengthening connections between the national security community, innovators, investors, and policymakers. In this interview, Lindsay Shingler talks with Catalyst director Scott Tait about the project’s first year and how the pandemic helped shape it.

When we spoke a year ago, Catalyst had just been launched, with ambitious goals—not only to improve connections between the defense establishment and technology innovators, but to get meaningful solutions deployed. How’s it going?

It’s been a little crazy with the pandemic. But any crisis is also an opportunity, and the pandemic has knocked down some of the barriers to innovation inside the national security community. We’ve built some really good linkages. And we now have validation of the model and how you do it.

I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was great concern that the illness would overwhelm the supply of ventilators, both in the U.S. and in developing countries. DOD [Department of Defense] put out a challenge for innovative ventilator designs, and one of the criteria was that they be made from readily available materials, so that they’d be simple enough to be useful to people who were only marginally trained in healthcare, and cheap enough to mass produce. We joined up with UC San Diego’s Medically Advanced Devices (MAD) Lab (a joint venture between the Jacobs School of Engineering and the UC San Diego medical school) and put together a team within about a day. Within another day, Kratos Defense—one of our founding sponsors—had contributed $100,000 to get them moving. And then within about seven days, working through one of the Navy’s local Science Advisors, the Office of Naval Research had contributed an additional $140,000. The ventilator they developed is now in production and use.

Has Catalyst’s focus changed since the initiative launched?

Like any good startup, we’ve pivoted a bit from our original business model. We’ve shifted our focus to the operational side of national security where requirements are written rather than the acquisition side. The way DOD develops technology works like this: operators who have missions submit their “requirements” (a description of the capabilities they need) to the service staffs; then the staffs get them into their budget requests. Once money is provided by Congress, the acquisition system works with industry to provide solutions that meet the requirement. Thus, there’s not much room left for innovative approaches on the acquisition side. There’s much more room for change when you start on the requirements side and expose the operators to what’s available in the commercial market, then help them explore how they’d use it.

As long as you can show that the innovation provides immediate operational value, the customer (i.e., DOD operational force) can help fund it out of their operations and maintenance budget, which gives smaller companies a path to survival across the proverbial valley of death, while that requirement is being put into the budget request. We’ve worked closely with Xcite here in San Diego, to try to get a couple young companies into this process, where they’re actually getting real revenue, and providing real services or products while they work their way through the requirements process.

What are some of the policy and research achievements of year-one?

Simply by virtue of figuring out what’s working and what isn’t, we’ve started to identify areas where, if policies were changed, it would be very beneficial. Most of those policies involve areas where the actors involved are extremely risk averse. Their incentives aren’t so much to succeed as to not fail. We’re looking at ways to partner with and empower change agents in the national security ecosystem. What are the ways they can be given the authority to make operational decisions without needing 20 or 30 different approvals?  We partnered with IGCC and the Silicon Valley Defense Group to make sure we have an effective way to get policy recommendations to the right audience.

The pandemic heightened concern in many countries about the vulnerability of global supply chains in world of renewed great power competition, and the need for resilience. In this sense, did the pandemic make people more aware of the problem Catalyst was created to solve?

Absolutely. People have been forced to realize that the system is a lot more fragile than they thought.  The recent Colonial Pipeline cyber attack is a case in point. It’s forcing people inside national security to start to take a more holistic view of what national security means. We used to think of defense as an “away game” outside the U.S., and of homeland security as a purely domestic effort. But today, there’s no major crisis that doesn’t quickly cascade across both those areas. Better cooperation and information sharing between government agencies, academia, and industry is going to be key going forward, whether it’s to address threats emanating from great power competition or natural disasters or pandemics. This reality has led IGCC to start its nascent National Security Professional Education initiative.

Will new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and 5G revolutionize defense the way nuclear weapons did? How do government and industry view the challenges ahead—are they on the same page?

In general, national security practitioners are a little bit behind in their understanding of the potential of these emerging technologies. The commercial sector is very much leading.

AI is a potential game changer on the level of nuclear weapons. When you pair it with other capabilities, like cyber and AI-driven edge computing for autonomous systems, I think you come to a period that looks a lot like the dawn of long-range intercontinental nuclear weapons—where a new technology forces a significant change in how we approach command and control.

Because of the speed at which AI is going to develop, folks working in our security apparatus are going to have to start delegating decisions to technology that have previously been made only by humans at fairly high levels. The faster we come to grips with that and start building new operational models and debate the ethics and legal framework within which this is going to happen, the better off we’ll be.

Catalyst hosted a conference on AI in April, in partnership with the Silicon Valley Defense Group, and with the Five Eyes partners, to start to look at this. IGCC will also lead a policy discussion on things like the ethical and legal and policy frameworks that are needed.

What do you worry about most in terms of the future?

I’m still incredibly positive about the U.S. system. The energy in the United States—especially among young people who are out there doing incredible new things—is a reason to be hopeful. We’ve got a generation now that has been shaped by three really significant seismic changes: 9/11, the crash in 2008, and now the pandemic. The last generation that was formed by a series of shocks like that grew up during the Depression and World War Two. I think we’re going see the same thing with this generation, which is an unwillingness to accept small changes when big ones are needed, and a fearlessness when it comes to making big changes.

I am also worried that we don’t fully understand the nature of the great power competition that we’re in. We’re still too focused on traditional definitions of roles when it comes to national security. We need a more holistic view of what competition looks like. Today it’s about who can best harness their cumulative national power, not necessarily in a military way, but in an economic way, and at the same time protect and defend our institutions.

What lessons have you learned about how to overcome the institutional barriers to accelerating innovation in the national security realm?

You have to look at incentive structures. That’s why we shifted to focus on the operational side. The operational side has a strong incentive to solve problems and get missions done. They also bring a lot of advocacy to the table. On the acquisition side, the incentives are different. They’re not necessarily incentivized to take risks or try anything new. Quite the opposite. I think the strongest lesson learned is: understand the incentive environment of the people you’re trying to help, and help those that most need it and are actually open to it.

For a lot of new organizations, the first thing they want to do is draw an organization chart and hire a bunch of people and build an organization. And then they go after the objective. We intentionally did it the other way around. We said, let’s figure out what the right function is first, and then we’ll build the form that makes sense around the function. It’s been chaotic at times, but I think it was the right approach. Going into our second year, I think we have a good idea now of what the most useful functions are.

What are some of the new things Catalyst will be working on over the next year?

We’re working with the Office of Innovation and Commercialization here at UC San Diego on a project called Civic Resilience and national security is one part of it. The idea is to build innovative networks in a time of non-crisis so that you can leverage them when there is a crisis. The project also looks at health care, manufacturing and logistics, and infrastructure.

We’re also excited to be working with IGCC to support the development of a National Security Professional Education system that will bring the power of academia and industry together to help advance and expand what’s now called Joint Professional Military Education (JPME).

Defense officials need a deeper understanding of how innovation is taking place, in particular in technology, but also in terms of financing models. I can give you an example. Silicon Valley has shifted away from patents and almost entirely to trade secrets. They see the patent system as too slow and fear that they have to divulge so much information that competitors who don’t follow trade laws—like the Chinese—will copy their technology. So, trade secrets sort of makes sense from the near-term competitive advantage perspective. The downside is that for almost all the international organizations that set standards for emerging technologies, national representation and national influence is based on the number of patents you have. So, the United States is actually eroding and undermining our position with the standards bodies over the long term, which will diminish our competitive position. These are the types of things that our national security practitioners really need to understand coming out of a program like this.

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