Pentagon leaders regularly tout Silicon Valley innovation, but entrepreneurs seem largely absent from the largest defense industry events.
Wander the exhibit floors of the military’s largest conferences this fall, and you’ll see everything from ground combat vehicles to veteran-trained service dogs, from bit players hawking flooring for overseas installations to industry giants showing off futuristic ideas. One thing you won’t see much of, if at all? Startups.
Pentagon leaders regularly laud Silicon Valley-esque companies and have repeatedly said that harnessing entrepreneurs’ innovative ideas is crucial to the U.S. military’s qualitative edge. Just this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the Pentagon will be opening a third Defense Innovation Unit Experimental facility in Austin. But that praise—and a planned $65 million in investments funneled through DIUx—have yet to translate to booths on the ground. At the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber conference last month, for example, none of the 120-plus exhibitors were what might conventionally be called a startup.
Why would you expect to see a millennial at the opera?” said Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, who leads Air Force Materiel Command. “By that I mean, the forum that’s here for AFA, a booth concept, is not the environment that the entrepreneurial community they engage with is one that they come to. It’s not of interest to them.”
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