Building a Defence Innovation Ecosystem
Rapid response. Quick pivots. Just-in-time delivery. These concepts are essential to combat modern threats. But none are possible without a serious conviction to support an innovation ecosystem that can help develop the technology necessary to meet new defence challenges head-on.
In the Department of National Defence (DND) sphere, this innovation ecosystem is being stimulated by the Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program. It is fast becoming an important support for the defence of Canada to help DND get ahead of what’s next.
Building the ecosystem
Like the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the IDEaS program has a mission. It helps DND and the CAF address critical challenges to Canada’s defence and security posture.
The approach is demand-driven; innovation is for the first time being drawn in through the capacity outside of DND’s walls. The program links DND/CAF’s needs to this external capacity, which in turn helps grow Canadian innovation capabilities.
The program has matured over its first three years, helping mitigate new threats, staying ahead of potential adversaries, and meeting evolving defence and security needs through technology. The networks and relationships built are a valuable by-product of the process.
Collaboration is key
A key aspect of the program is to re-imagine the way the innovators work. Not just by pushing technology through a defence lens, but by creating synergies between technologies that may not have naturally occurred. “By encouraging companies to work together, to combine their technologies and come up with integrated solutions, we get better and more advanced results,” says Director General, Innovation, Eric Fournier, and head of the program.
Mr. Fournier points to the Pop-up City Contest pitch event, where contestants were expected to merge their independent technologies to produce an integrated solution for a relocatable temporary camp for troops. Energy, water, and waste management systems had to be joined to reduce inputs and outputs, and teams had to pitch their concepts together to a panel of judges from DND/CAF and other government partners. Up to three lucky winners will receive $1.5M to develop their prototype. The teams each contained up to seven different companies that are working together.
Other funding elements, like Innovation Networks, require participants to identify two or more academic partners in order to qualify for funding from the start. It brings together academic and private sector partners. “We are tinkering with the way the ecosystem works, constantly pushing our innovators to get the most out of them and their respective technologies, and this means bringing in unconventional partners,” says Mr. Fournier.
The IDEaS program also collaborates with the Office of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises and Innovative Solutions Canada to help build a network of internal partners to help innovators continue their journey.
Working on the competitive edges
Other funding elements rely on tried and tested methods to separate the elite from the average: competition. Competitive Projects ask participants to compete for research dollars, where the edge is given to promising technologies. Selected projects from the Competitive Projects stream are then further refined using additional funding to advance the best solutions.
Sandboxes, a demonstration element, offers DND a glimpse into technologies available on the market. By demonstrating their technologies side-by-side, it makes it easier to compare between competing technologies in a controlled environment.
“All of our funding elements have a single driving feature, which is to distill the best technology out of a variety of solutions presented to find the best solutions for the CAF,” says Mr. Fournier. “Sometimes a little competition helps.”
The value of building a defence innovation ecosystem was demonstrated recently during COVID-19. With a base of innovators at the ready, the IDEaS program pivoted to launch four COVID-19 related challenges as part of the pan-government response. It received over 460 proposals from academia, industry, not-for-profits, and individuals.
“This would not have been possible three years ago,” says Mr. Fournier. “Without the reach of the program, we would not have received even a fraction of the potential innovators that we did.” Forty-eight solutions were selected in the first round of funding.
A slow and steady buildup of hard work, calculated pivots, and strategic relationships have been the foundation for success in building a defence research ecosystem. And solutions are starting to roll in.
“In just its third year of operation, the program has supported innovative research that includes taking inspiration from octopuses to create artificially intelligent camouflage. It has also helped fund the development of cutting-edge cyber attribution that is already in the hands of our troops for testing. And this is just the beginning. Many new projects are to report results in the coming months, some of which will be test-driven, off-ramped, or purchased directly through an independent call for proposals by DND/CAF,” says Mr. Fournier.
Two projects from the IDEaS program that progressed through the Competitive Projects stream have already been selected for an IDEaS Test Drive by DND/CAF members. These innovative solutions will be tested by the military in real-world scenarios. Over the next year, the program hopes to see several solutions complete their early development work from IDEaS and be acquired by the program where we can see changes in defence capabilities.
Test Drives offer a unique finale for IDEaS program innovators. After developing the technology with the help of IDEaS funding, specific innovators may be invited to test their technology with DND/CAF and, to receive feedback in real-time. “The relationship between the IDEaS program and innovators, can continue for many years, and we see the technology go from a low readiness level to almost fully deployable within a few short years,” says Mr. Fournier. “It can result in a fully-formed product ready for purchase and use by DND/CAF, through an independent acquisition process, which is really exciting.”
Though not all projects will reach the tested stage, some projects are being offered various off-ramping opportunities. Partnerships grown with other Canadian government departments and agencies has brought a fresh opportunity for budding innovators looking for a market for their products if the solutions do not meet the CAF’s needs.
“The spillover effect of investigating in these new technologies is that while not all will be a viable solution for DND/CAF, we are able to allow innovators to continue their journey with the help of other government partners, programs, and funding opportunities,” explains Mr. Fournier.
The benefits of a robust innovation ecosystem are varied. DND builds capability; innovators get advice, guidance, and money; intellectual property gets created; and funding is used to generate economic benefits for Canada. But the technology that is created also has generational benefits. Technologies like cyber attribution, improved pandemic response, and integrating autonomous systems into operations will have broad societal benefits, but also benefit our military. It’s an exciting time to be in the innovation business. And like any good innovation, the IDEaS program will continue to evolve.