Head of CIA's venture capital arm lists challenges

The quasi-private venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency is finding unprecedented demand for better intelligence and security technologies after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Commissioned two years ago, In-Q-Tel is charged with encouraging the creation of technologies to help meet future information technology needs at the CIA and related intelligence organizations.

Speaking before a packed luncheon sponsored by Virginia's Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, In-Q-Tel CEO Gilman Louie said the firm's goal is to add "relevance" into the equation of information technology and national security apparatus.

It starts with changing the mindset in the national security and defense communities, which are premised on the notion that their needs and skills are highly specialized, he told audience members. While it is true, he said, that defense and intelligence workers "are trained to be special and different," the tools they require to execute their missions are not that different from the tools needed in the commercial world.

The "challenge we have is to take ... [technology] in the hands of [the nation's youth] and make sure that technology is in the hands ... [of] people on the frontlines, defending this country," said Louie, a former executive in the interactive entertainment industry.

Over the last few decades, the national security environment has changed, Louie said. The end of the Cold War, for example, and the commercial explosion of technology products mean the government is no longer the No. 1 procurer of information technology.

But he said certain government needs still exist. The success of the intelligence community can mean life or death, so the CIA cannot afford second-best technologies, according to Louie.

He said In-Q-Tel's goal is to "strategically" engage commercial firms as they develop products while also considering new demand for the intelligence agencies as they research and conceptualize new technology products.

"We needed a new way of reaching these companies during their development stages," he said.

The success of In-Q-Tel has been its role as a "vetting" center and its ability to understand the needs behind technology, he said. But its challenge is looking at many types of products and technologies--domestic, foreign, public and private--and translating them into tangible tools that can meet intelligence community goals.

"We have to be able to have any application ... that quickly allows us to track the information we need," he said.

In August, a congressionally mandated review panel urged lawmakers to continue funding In-Q-Tel because the group's projects showed "solid early evidence of success." Some other federal agencies are beginning to look at the In-Q-Tel model, Louie said, possibly to replicate it in the quest for homeland security technologies.

After Sept. 11, In-Q-Tel received bids from nearly 500 firms, realizing that the security needs of the nation had changed instantly, he said. To date, In-Q-Tel has reached deals with 20 firms, and seven of those projects have resulted in technology solutions that are under review, he added.

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