National security accelerator advances faculty and student ideas and technologies

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The new National Security Academic Accelerator (NSA2) pilot program at ASU advances dual-use ventures capable of serving both commercial and defense markets.

National security accelerator advances faculty and student ideas and technologies

By Lisa McQuerrey

Aug. 18, 2021

The recently launched National Security Academic Accelerator (NSA2) pilot program at Arizona State University created a unique opportunity for ASU faculty, researchers and students. A partnership with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), NSA2 was created as a means for working with top research institutions to support and advance development of dual-use ventures capable of serving both commercial and defense markets. 

According to Samantha Hiller, university program director for NSIN, in the short period of time since it was launched, ASU has outperformed the expectation in its ability to match and develop cutting-edge technologies and brought together its unique resources and nontraditional stakeholders from industry and defense to align under a common vision.

“ASU’s growing success makes it clear they are a major player within the defense innovation ecosystem, and we look forward to building on these accomplishments,” she said.

The NSA2 program provides unprecedented levels of access to defense industry customers and end users, as well as training and funding support, with the recognition that university-generated dual-use startups have the potential to address critical national security challenges with innovative solutions.

“NSIN’s goal is to cultivate a national security ecosystem by running a suite of programs with partner universities across the country," Hiller said. "As one of the several programs NSIN deploys at ASU, NSA2 represented the culmination of these activities and delivered a proof of concept that underutilized and under-leveraged technology inside universities can support DoD requirements.”

Partnerships are central to ASU’s charter and mission, making the affiliation with NSIN an important element of the university’s defense contracting and entrepreneurship portfolios. NSIN is a U.S. Department of Defense program office under the Defense Innovation Unit devoted to seeking out new communities of innovators to solve national security problems. The organization’s mission is to partner with select research institutions like ASU to advance civil-military technology collaboration. 

“NSA2 is the equivalent of market research. If you want to operate with the DoD and you’re not a large corporation, it’s important that you’re a dual-use market or technology. You need to have a good civilian case as well as a military application.” — Joe Sanchez

ASU Knowledge Enterprise Vice President Ji Mi Choi and Assistant Vice President Drew Trojanowski are co-principal investigators on the NSA2 pilot. Choi has been instrumental in leading ASU’s National Science Foundation I-Corps program, which supports business accelerators, and also leads the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute as founding executive director. Trojanowski is responsible for developing ASU’s capacity to accelerate technology and create an agile workforce for national security that can also be used to enhance regional and local economies.  

The Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute facilitates and supports collaborations between entrepreneurs and industry partners, and was responsible for the university becoming one of only five sites in the nation selected for this high-profile opportunity. Participating teams successfully pivoted to an online forum with a virtual showcase and had the chance to engage with the DoD, as well as with business development professionals and companies dedicated to technology transfer.

During its inaugural year, 27 ASU teams applied and advanced 16 technologies through the program. All teams included faculty along with ASU students. This level of access to training and coaching represented an invaluable opportunity to learn best practices around developing and advancing ventures and securing government funding.

“NSA2 cut down time to reach out and connect with those people,” explained Fengbo Ren, associate professor in ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “It accelerated our startup plan to some extent, as the most important thing in an early stage company is understanding the customer and your product’s market fit.”

Ren advanced his idea for a hardware-agnostic accelerator orchestration framework through NSA2, enabling extreme-scale heterogeneous High-Performance Computing (HPC). Dubbed HALO, the accelerator enables hardware-agnostic programming against a unified API and true accelerator interoperability, which is the key to realizing true performance portability and performance scalability for extreme-scale heterogeneous HPC. Ren said the most beneficial element of his participation in NSA2 was learning how to consider consumer requirements.

“NSA2 is where we learned the importance of the customer interview, and how to conduct them,” said Ren. “Understanding, knowing customer needs... in research, we don’t think too much about that or about the potential application. The most valuable thing was to get real insight into the pain point of the customer.”

Ren will be taking a sabbatical next year to further develop his work and launch his startup.

One of the most notable aspects of the NSA2 program is the opportunity for faculty to directly receive feedback from the DoD, including Air Force and Navy research labs. This access can lead to customer engagement opportunities where participants glean insights about technology needs and receive coaching and training. These valuable connections set the stage for researchers to gain unique insights about best practices around securing government funding in the form of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), Small Business Technology Transfer (STTI) and I-Corps grants to help them advance their technologies.  

“NSA2 is where we learned the importance of the customer interview, and how to conduct them. The most valuable thing was to get real insight into the pain point of the customer.” — Fengbo Ren

Joe Sanchez is the emerging technology portfolio manager of NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge and a DoD partner, as well as a two-time ASU alumnus. He said participation in NSA2 was helpful in understanding the kind of tech research that’s in development and what government agencies are looking to fund.

“NSA2 is the equivalent of market research,” explained Sanchez. “If you want us to be your market, if you want to operate with the DoD and you’re not a large corporation, it’s important that you’re a dual-use market or technology. You need to have a good civilian case as well as a military application, so it needs to be dual-use if you want to survive outside of the DoD.”

“I was introduced to the program by Ji Mi Choi and invited to join the showcase event,” said Daniel Schumacher, ​director of global IT applications and digital innovation for Komatsu America and Komatsu Mining. “I was one of the few commercial businesses and nondefense organizations on the call, and it was fascinating to hear all of the ideas presented and the potential applications and business cases.”

Schumacher said he observed a degree of “incredibly brilliant and innovative thinking” coming out of ASU and bringing new, practical-use capabilities to life.

“I initially expected there would be little crossover between defense and commercial applications, but I found that almost every innovation had practical applications for both," said Schumacher. “One of the innovations presented directly solves a real business problem for my teams today. The NSA2 showcase led to a follow-up meeting, and we are now co-innovating directly with the ASU participant, jointly solving a real-world challenge for us and providing an opportunity for him to showcase his innovation in a commercial setting.”

The NSA2 program is an example of ASU’s ongoing commitment to fostering public and private partnerships between academia, government entities, business leaders and nongovernmental organizations.

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