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Nothing like cash to bring out real innovators

Two of the most dreadfully overused words these days are “innovation” and “job creators.” Politicians who talk about “job creators” ad nauseum mostly don’t have the faintest clue about what it takes to create even one  job on a firm, sustained basis. That is, to cause wealth creation. They fail to understand that at best, government imposes only a small drag on people doing the work of the word. At worst, it smothers economic growth, using an array of blankets.

“Innovation” hardly means anything, when people apply it with the same breathlessness to some new web gewgaw as they would to a new rocket ship. Government, while it doesn’t itself innovate, can help create  conditions in which innovation occurs. A case in point is the Global Security Challenge.  A small agency called Technical Support Working Group, funded by the Defense Department, is behind this challenge. The challenge prize — in this case $500,000 divided between each of two winning companies — is provided by TSWG. BAE Systems also contributes to the process. The whole thing is staged by a contractor, OmniCompete of the U.K. It also stages challenges in other fields with other sponsors. In this case, the goals it to find great and promising new innovations in security.

I was a judge, one of five, for the U.S. East Coast regional competition in the Global Security Challenge. The competition took place at the Australian Embassy (with a reception afterwards up the street at the New Zealand Embassy). The chief judge was John Morgan, technology advisor to the Army Special Operations Command. We heard from two sets of five companies — small, going companies with revenue and startups, which mostly don’t yet have operating revenue. Each company sent one or two representatives give five-minute presentations, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A by the judges.

Wow.

Talk about real innovation. And the potential for jobs creation.

All of the presenters were smart cookies. They ranged from brainy engineers to slick salesmen. Some were canny, repeat entrepreneurs who’d started and sold other companies. Several had long histories in the thickets of federal contracting and service delivery to military customers. Connected people. They represented technical developers from all over the world. Israeli engineering strength undergirded several entries. One company had its complex mathematics models programmed in Russia.

I found the range of innovations startling. One startup called WallEye developed a microwave camera capable of seeing through walls yet priced cheap enough to produce as a tool you will be able to buy at Home Depot. The secret? Reduction of wave propagation technology from expensive electronics to a plastic spinning antenna the company can produce for pennies apiece.

In the end, we chose as one winner a company called DefenSoft, whose software, it said, makes short work of planning the placement of communications towers, antennae, cameras and sensors in complicated campuses with difficult terrain. Its chairman, Kris Nybakken, was a founder of WebMD. Its CEO, Lawrence Cassenti, is a veteran of many border installations and defense communications projects. Our other winner was a startup called InView. It’s founder, an engineer named Bob Bridge, has replaced the receptor array in an infrared camera with a single, micro-mirror detector. This change drops the cost of an industrial infrared camera by an order of magnitude.

Some ideas were more impressive than others, and we argued back and forth before settling on a single choice in the two categories. That’s about all I am allowed to say about our deliberations. But in all cases, we witnessed the competitive drive of people producing new things because of their creative drive and desire to capitalize on their brains.

The winners from our D.C. regional event join winners of other regional presentations from all over the world. They convene in London for the finals next month.

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