Innovation and Enterprise Transformation in the NATO Communications and Information Agency

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Hannah Croft

As part of Defence iQ's ongoing research into Innovation and Enterprise Transformation in Defence, I spoke with Dr Michael Street, Head of Innovation and Data Science, and Rasa Pagone, Senior Officer in Industry Relations and the NITEC21 Conference Director at the NCI Agency, to talk about the their upcoming Innovation Challenge, the NITEC Conference and the broader NATO innovation strategy as it relates to defence-industrial relations, technology development and acquisition.

Could you talk about the genesis of the NCI Agency’s Innovation Challenge – why it was set up, its core objectives, and perhaps share some success stories and lessons learnt from the past four years?

Dr Street: The Defence Innovation Challenge was created to surface innovative thinking and technology solutions from small businesses from all NATO Nations in areas of communications, information and data, which are of critical importance to the Alliance's mission.

Organizations who finish in the top 10 of the challenge get to showcase their solution at our industry conference NITEC, which is a great way for them to engage with NCI Agency experts on the technology and how it could be used by NATO. Plus it gives them visibility amongst the National government participants and other companies attending the conference, leading to opportunities for partnership or to procure their solution.

In the past, winners of our Challenge have said the challenge helped them meet new people, gain credibility and gauge interest in specific technical areas.
The Spring 2020 Challenge is the fifth iteration of this Challenge, and this year we are doing things differently to incorporate lessons learned from our past four challenges.

Over the years, our focus areas have changed, but the format of the Challenge has remained the same until last year. As a part of winning in 2019, the top finisher was given the ambitious task of running a formal pilot with the NCI Agency and CMRE, to demonstrate their solution in front of a dedicated group of NATO’s operational users.

In our last challenges, we noticed that we were getting all of these great ideas, but the Agency was not providing a pathway for them to mature, to eventually be ready to scale to the NATO environment.

Defence Innovation Challenge Winners on stage at NITEC19 (NITEC 2020)

Pangone: So for the first time, the most promising proposals of our 2020 Challenge may subsequently be invited to bid for a contract in this area. And as a part of the bidding process, invited winners will be offered the opportunity to demonstrate their solutions in a NATO environment, to a relevant NATO audience.

With this new format, we aim to provide a pathway for the most innovative ideas to be implemented at NATO. This new format allows the Agency the opportunity to procure a solution proposed in the Challenge to improve the services it delivers to NATO.

How does the Challenge tie in to the broader NCI Agency/NATO innovation strategy?

Dr Street: The Defence Innovation Challenge is a great way for a wide range of companies to share their innovative products and services with the NCI Agency. It is one way we ensure that NATO’s technology experts stay up-to-date with innovative technologies, and how they are being applied. But the Challenge isn’t the only thing we are doing to bring innovation into NATO.

We have supported quite a few hackathons in recent years to foster innovation in a whole range of technical areas. We supported the machine learning-focused TIDE Hackathon in February, which is led by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. Machine learning is like every technology that we use – it’s complicated, it’s sophisticated, and it has the potential to be incredibly powerful. We are exploring how we can use machine learning to help commanders make better decisions, faster.

This year we are also hosting a classified data hackathon in The Hague. This is a really interesting opportunity to get security-cleared data scientists from NATO Nations to work together on some of our data. In NATO, we have the unique challenge to conquer of not only analysing a large volume of data, but of analysing data that can only be accessed by certain scientists, and in certain ways. This is a big step for us, and we look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

All of these things feed into our larger innovation strategy. We have to innovate. It is not an option for us. Our mission is to keep NATO’s technology at a level that provides a technological advantage over potential adversaries. We have to ensure that NATO is prepared for threats that are emerging in our technological landscape. Our innovation strategy helps keep us focused on improving the services we provide to our customers, NATO and the Nations. This may sound obvious, but innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t what we are after. We are after real, meaningful, transformative technologies that deliver a positive impact to our users.

Another area of focus, when it comes to innovation, is implementing innovative changes to our processes to make us more efficient. We have to make sure we have processes in place that enable us to innovate, instead of processes that become bureaucratic roadblocks.

What do you see as the biggest barriers to innovation and what is the NCI Agency doing to adapt and embrace it? (i.e. in leadership, culture, process, industry relationships)

Dr Street: It’s no secret that NATO is risk adverse. And we are for legitimate reasons. In many cases, we cannot afford to fail. Our solutions ensure NATO troops can communicate and work together. But we need to change our culture to move at the speed of relevance. We need to advocate for new methods of acquiring technology, where we can work at the same speed as dynamic, innovative businesses.

Many small businesses out there may have something important to offer NATO. We are working on ways to improve our processes so that we can get those innovative ideas into NATO as quickly as possible, in a way that is sustainable. We need these innovations to work in our environment, with our security constraints; and we need to continue to work with the industries that develop these solutions so they can be depended on by the users. We know NATO is a demanding customer, but working closely with demanding customers helps business deliver cutting-edge products and services.

Pangone: Industry is an enabler, not a barrier to innovation. We want to maintain a strong dialogue with industry so that we can learn what they are doing and how it can be applied to the NATO environment.

Enterprise is a key feature of the NITEC conference, with a specific focus on accessibility for and engagement with SMEs, academia, and not for profit organisations. What do you understand to be the biggest challenges with regards to building these relationships, working with them on concept development and prototyping, or supporting them through often complex Defence acquisition and innovation frameworks? How are you working to “broaden the church”, so to speak, with regards to enterprise?

Pangone: Organizations that lie outside of the traditional defence industrial base, without a doubt, have a lot to offer NATO and the wider defence community. NATO has a need for much of the same technology used by other companies and organizations around the world. We need tools to analyse our data, as one example.

And of course beyond traditional business software and systems, there are many innovative companies in NATO Nations who offer niche capabilities that could help us maintain our edge. There is commercial technology that can be adapted for NATO use – we just have to build relationships with our industry partners so that they understand how to bid, and what technological standards we require.

When it comes to building these relationships, I think the biggest barrier for companies can be knowing where to start. The acquisition process can be daunting, and takes time to understand. One of the ways we demystify the process is through national industry days. Nations can request an industry day to expose their industry to NATO. We send representatives to discuss what areas we work in and how to do business with us.

Another venue for building relationships is our industry conference NITEC. The conference is NATO’s largest tech industry engagement, and is a great opportunity for companies to learn more about what we do, and get a preview of our upcoming business opportunities. At NITEC, we offer extra opportunities for small businesses to connect with the NATO community, both with companies who have been exposed to the NATO environment, and with our own programme managers and acquisition experts.

In particular, we have been facilitating B2B mentoring on the margins of NITEC. We have reached out to industry partners to ask if they would like to serve as mentors to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). They typically meet at NITEC with these SMEs and offer advice, some best practices and feedback.

Our Mentoring Programme offers small businesses the opportunity to network with large companies in one-on-one sessions. Those conversations cover a large range of topics, including product development, marketing, seed financing, collaborating with partner companies and best practices when competing for NATO contracts.

Our programme managers and acquisition experts are also available during NITEC to meet with SMEs who have questions about our acquisition process, or particular upcoming Invitations for Bids.

This has been a huge success so far, and next year, we are expanding our mentoring efforts further, both at NITEC and beyond. At NITEC21, participants will be able to identify themselves through our event app as an “SME Mentor.” By doing so, they say that they would be willing to help, and take meetings with small businesses. Such mentoring really has a two-way benefit: SMEs get advice and tools to begin their journey to a NATO contract, and larger enterprises can get connected with small business who may have innovative ideas. We encourage small businesses to team up with some of these larger entities, and this mentoring process helps build those relationships.

Often, smaller businesses can’t offer a bid that fulfils all of our needs on a particular project, but they can do one piece of it really well. We want to tear down any roadblocks to getting those innovations into NATO, which is why we encourage small businesses to find a larger partner they can work with.

This mentoring has been such a success that we also aim to extend it beyond our industry conference. Next year we will launch a six-month pilot programme to explore this idea. SMEs will apply for the mentorship programme, and identify areas where they need help, like in pitching, for example, or networking. We are excited to launch this programme, so stay tuned for more news on it soon.