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Q&A with Scott Tait, Executive Director, Catalyst

Feb. 13, 2020 | By Lindsay Morgan | IGCC News

Scott TaitThe United States leads the world in innovation, research and technology, but risks losing its national security edge to rising competitors. Catalyst, a new IGCC initiative, aims to drive more and better investment in and adoption of security innovations by strengthening connections between the national security community, innovators, researchers and investors, and policymakers. In this interview, Catalyst Executive Director Scott Tait talks about the global shifts that provide the impetus for Catalyst, the barriers to innovation and how Catalyst will tackle them, and what brought him to UC San Diego after nearly 30 years in the Navy.

What is Catalyst?

Catalyst identifies and develops new technologies, in particular technologies that are already commercially viable, and works with entrepreneurs, investors, and national security agencies to get them adapted for national security use. It’s important to note that, for our purpose, “national security” is defined very broadly and includes Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, the FBI, Department of the Interior, Centers for Disease Control and others—because national security now includes all these players and we’ve got them all here in San Diego. Our goal is to help innovators navigate the U.S. government system, reducing the barriers to entry and ultimately leading to deployment of new and better technology.

Why is Catalyst needed now? 

Catalyst was born out of the return of great power competition, and the need to ensure the U.S. can compete effectively in the new global environment. Across the board, strategic rivalry is more complicated and nuanced than it was during the Cold War. We used to have a pretty clear understanding of what the security threats were. Today they have proliferated to include things like cyber warfare, competition in space, hybrid conflicts and environmental change and an acceleration of traditional threats like terrorism, state aggression and pandemic disease.

Responding to these challenges requires new ways of thinking, new technologies and new partnerships.  People have to be smarter, and systems have to be much quicker to adapt and much more resilient than they were in the past. 

Isn’t the U.S. already the leader in innovation and technology? 

We are still generally regarded as the most innovative society out there, but in a world where the majority of students educated here in technical areas are not going to stay here, it’s questionable how long we’ll remain on top without a concerted effort to change. If we want to maintain the fairly comfortable position we’ve enjoyed, both in terms of material goods and the ability to influence the way the world works, we’re going to have to innovate faster, smarter, and better than we are today. 

What prevents the U.S. from adapting and innovating more quickly? 

We’ve got a very large government, and by their nature, governments exist to standardize and stabilize, and that’s the opposite of innovation.

Hasn’t the U.S. government been a key funder of innovation?

It’s changed overtime. From about 1870 until about 1945, in the U.S. and everywhere else, the vast majority of technology originated outside the government and was adapted for national security purposes. After World War II, there was an inversion where all of the sudden the government became the biggest funder of R&D. Something like 6 to 7 percent of GDP went into R&D.

Now things are transitioning back to industry-led innovation. The government still funds a lot of great R&D in places like DARPA and the national labs, but it’s not being adopted at the same pace that commercial technology is. 

What slows the government down?

The incentives within the government don’t align with innovation and adoption. I’ll give you an example. There’s a company here in San Diego that has been out working with national security agencies on counter-drone technology, and their product has proven pretty effective. But despite user advocacy from military operators, they’ve been unable to break into the government acquisition process, even though they have a solution that, by all accounts, is as effective, already available, and much cheaper than what the large defense contractors are offering to do.

The large defense contractors are extremely influential and, to their credit, they’re also pretty reliable. One of the things that makes program offices hesitant to take a bet on small companies is that if they accept a small company’s solution, and then the company folds, now they’re in real trouble. If they go to Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman or one of the large contractors, they know that they’re going to be able to deliver for 20 years, on training, maintenance, and all those things that program managers have to worry about. The problem is that by keeping that program manager’s job easy, we’re buying 100-million-dollar solutions instead of one-million-dollar solutions to do the same thing. 

How does Catalyst tackle this problem?

Catalyst will identify national security needs, identify solutions and help develop those solutions to a point where they can become commercially viable products. Fifty percent of the time, businesses have no idea that what they are working on is a dual-use technology—that there’s a potential market within national security agencies for their product. We identify innovators working on technologies with potential national security applications, and pair them with investors, and we’ll link young companies working on cutting-edge technologies with accelerators or incubators familiar with the technology. Early on, we’ll help them navigate through the government procurement system. 

We also work with national security practitioners, researchers and companies to develop solutions to meet the most pressing needs of the national security agencies.

Why is Catalyst based in San Diego, and not, say, Washington DC?

We chose to do Catalyst here, because - besides being a beautiful city - San Diego is home to national security practitioners across Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Centers for Disease Control—you name it. There’s also a lot of innovators here naturally, which provides a wonderful opportunity for young companies to get their products out into the hands of potential users. 

There are a number of institutes and centers that focus on the intersection between national security, technology, and innovation. What makes Catalyst unique?

There are a lot of other innovation efforts, from fully public efforts funded by the government, like the research labs, to public-private partnerships. What makes us different is our deep ties to the academy—not only UC San Diego and the broader UC system, but also San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. We’re also more in tune to the entire ecosystem—from R&D all the way through to commercially viable companies, because we’re plugged in with a range of organizations. 

Probably the most significant difference is, because we’re not federal government, we are not only allowed but, here at UC San Diego, encouraged to work on the policy research side to try to fix some of the chronic long-term problems rather than just fix the symptoms by getting one-off technologies into user hands. UCSD’s reputation as an objective and non-partisan knowledge source is an absolute benefit, as are the deep UC connections with policymakers. 

What will Catalyst do on the research and policy side?

A number of our challenges are rooted in policy. By using the technology side as a laboratory, we’re able to make very discrete, targeted policy recommendations to reduce barriers to innovation and improve U.S. competitiveness. If we can identify which policy, which law, which process, which office is consistently hindering innovative solutions, then we can arm the congressional staffers with that information. There’s a huge appetite on the part of the lawmaker community to have that.

What do you hope to achieve in year one, and what do you hope to achieve by year five? 

In year one, we’re building linkages. We’ve started by mapping the environment of startups: R&D organizations, innovations cells, the incubators, the investors. The second half of this year will be spent establishing the linkages within national security agencies and getting the policy side kicked off. We’re also developing a curriculum for the summer that is intended to bring together mid-career leaders from national security operational agencies plus lawmakers and the business community, to provide them some leveling in innovation and national security. 

We have spent a lot of time looking at objective, meaningful metrics for success so that when we get to year five, we know whether we should continue this or close it down. By year five, my sense is that we will have been successful if we have helped get a number of meaningful solutions deployed, especially solutions that meet more than one national security need and that are commercially viable, and helped young companies get the type of investment they need to succeed.

It sounds ambitious. 

It is.

Why do you think Catalyst will succeed?

I’m an optimist so I think the world is ultimately healthier, wealthier, and safer than it has probably ever been, and provided we don’t have any colossal screw-ups, that trajectory seems likely to continue. But there’s going to be a much higher demand on the system for innovation and rapid adaptation as well as resilience. There’s an appetite for this among national security agencies, and real willingness to find new ways of working together. What’s needed is a group to bring the communities together, and Catalyst—with our long and deep network among business, government, and the academy, is really well-positioned to do that.