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The Next Wave | Vol. 19 | No. 3 | 2012

Bringing technology inside NSA

Most of this issue of The Next Wave covers transferring technology out of NSA. But there is a flip side: Technology transfer at NSA both spins internally developed technologies out and brings externally developed technologies in. As in many scientific and technical organizations, the Research Directorate of NSA uses the tried and true method of technology scouting to uncover technological gems and bring them inside NSA. Research Directorate technology scouts focus on three key activities:

    Technology identification,

    Technology evaluation, and

    Technology outreach.

These interdependent activities are used to discover new technologies or new developments in previously mature fields that are useful for increased awareness or for direct use by an NSA program.

Technology identification requires persistent curiosity and perseverance. In the hunt for new and emerging technologies, technology scouts attend conferences, workshops, and panels. They participate in meetings and demonstrations and commission and study research surveys. Scouts can also be asked to perform a certain level of due diligence on customer requests and assess the merit of unsolicited proposals that come into NSA.

Technology evaluation involves the alignment of technologies with technical problems of interest to NSA. If a topic match exists between a technology and a technical problem, the capabilities of the technology are reviewed to determine applicability. Technology scouts must have both deep technical knowledge of a small range of subjects and more limited knowledge in a wide range of fields. Key to technology evaluation is the ability to recognize promising technologies and make estimates of the capabilities of the individuals or organizations that are proposing them. In this way, technology scouts can winnow technology opportunities so that only the most promising move forward.

Technology outreach focuses on maintaining affiliations with industry and academia and collaborating with federal government and intelligence community related groups. Technology scouts also engage with state and local organizations.

The preceding is an accurate but rather dry description of the very exciting job of technology scouting within NSA's Research Directorate. For an engineer, what is technology scouting like from day to day and week to week? It's nothing less than amazing. Technology scouts see NSA and its functions at every different level and in context of the larger intelligence community. Technology scouts constantly learn about new technologies and the latest innovations. They also meet new people from within NSA, the broader intelligence community, universities, and state and local governments. In addition, they meet with many entrepreneurs and companies, both large and small. Some of the customers are looking for brand new ideas and hitherto unnoticed scientific phenomena, while others are looking for finished or nearly finished products that can be used right away. To give you a better feel for what technology scouting is all about, the following is a first-hand account of a typical week in the life of a technology scout.

A week in the life of a technology scout


I arrive at the office, review my emails, and check my schedule for the day. Because I'll be in and out a lot this week, I need to make sure that my travel arrangements are taken care of and any outstanding tasks are covered. I prepare for a regularly scheduled meeting with a customer. He arrives at my cubicle, and I ask him about some hardware prototypes that I delivered to him a few months earlier. He has finished his evaluation of the hardware, so I collect the hardware and drop it off with another customer interested in the technology.

After lunch, I have a regular teleconference with representatives from many of the intelligence community agencies. During these teleconferences, we discuss technologies and companies and exchange feedback. After the meeting, I write up my notes on the teleconference. In the afternoon, I leave to attend another regularly scheduled meeting with a researcher. Following that meeting, I get a phone call about an outreach event sponsored by the acquisition office. They want representatives from the Technology Transfer Program and Technology Scouting to speak at an upcoming event a few months away. After checking my calendar, I reserve the time. Finally, I make some phone calls to check on the progress of ongoing technology transfers and finish up my day studying the latest innovations in software-defined radio.


My day starts at an industry partner location for a technology showcase. When I arrive at that facility, I recognize some retired NSA colleagues and converse with them until the session opens. (Have to maintain those contacts!) Soon the director for the showcase calls the meeting to order and introduces the five companies that will be presenting. Each company has 30 minutes to introduce themselves and what they do. We have a 10-minute period between each company's presentation to discuss the capabilities presented and exchange feedback regarding the merits of presentation. Four hours fly by like nothing, and the meeting runs over the allotted time. The companies represent a range of technologies from biometric devices for security applications to visualization software and analytic algorithms. One company catches my eye. They have a patented technology that I think could be of great use to a specific customer. The company reps have some hardware at the showcase, so I take the opportunity to examine it and ask questions. Some temperature controls are involved, and I'm troubled by the lack of insulating material in the device. In the end, I decide that the company isn't a good fit for the applications I had in mind.

After the showcase, I grab lunch at a local eatery and discuss the companies with a fellow employee in attendance from NSA's Office of Small Business Programs and one of my recently retired colleagues. I then drive back to Fort Meade to meet with a company that has a web-based tool for soliciting information from companies on their research efforts. The tool manages data flow from data ingestion to final storage while supporting interactive evaluations of the research offerings. The tool looks promising but the timeline for our efforts is too long. I propose some modifications to the tool to support some of our needs and head home for the day.


Today I document the previous day's work and evaluate some of the unsolicited proposals forwarded from the Acquisition Office. A number of these proposals are sent in by well-meaning individuals with unique ideas. Some of the proposals are from universities with specific research on topics of interest to NSA. Some of the proposals are from start-up companies trying to get business with NSA. The problems identified by the proposers are often relevant, but they lack the proper resources or background to deliver a viable solution. Sometimes offices are interested in a proposal but lack the funds to pursue it. Occasionally, a proposal comes in that matches a current need in an office and a contractual arrangement can be worked out. Those are the best.

After lunch, I meet with a representative of a company that attended an NSA-sponsored Business in a Minute activity. Business in a Minute is like speed dating all day, but with businesses instead of potential romantic partners. It's held locally, and different organizations from NSA have representatives there ready to hear 10-minute pitches from a steady stream of companies who want to learn more about NSA and win contracts. Every 40 minutes you get a brief break, which often isn't a break at all as company reps try to grab your attention. This particular company had some intriguing database analytics and merited a follow-up visit. I've scheduled a room at another location for the meeting since the company has no cleared employees. The technology demonstration is promising, and the ideas seem sound. I ask a number of questions and like the answers I get. The company, like most these days, has a cloud computing strategy and could be a fit with the right customer. I ask for additional information and thank them for the demonstration.


Today I fly out to the Midwest to give a presentation at a government outreach event. Since I decided to be "fiscally responsible" and not rent a GPS from the rental car company, I have to rely on my Google Maps printout to navigate to the hotel. Even though the roads have changed a bit from my printout, I eventually get there. At the speaker's reception that evening, I find myself next to an Air Force brigadier general in uniform and several company and university representatives. I strike up a conversation with a NASA engineer whose talk concerns green power initiatives. We talk about flywheel storage and he informs me that NASA is actually doing a technology transfer of flywheel storage technology that lasts much longer than current commercial technology. Later in the evening his ride leaves without him, and I end up driving him back to the hotel. Having a navigator at night in a strange city is a relief after my earlier adventures getting to the conference.


The outreach event presentations begin this morning. I transfer my PowerPoint files to the display laptop and run through them to make sure all is in order. The morning talks are divided up into two different sessions. My newfound NASA friend is speaking in the other session, so I can't listen to his presentation. I'm scheduled to speak after lunch in a combined session. The speaker prior to me runs over time—by a lot. The event organizers quietly ask if I can cut down my presentation. I answer "yes" and mentally toss out half my slide deck. Following my presentation, there is a round table with the government representatives answering questions from the many businesses' attendees.

After that, the outreach event ends, but my day's not over. I'd previously agreed to meet with a company representative seeking to do business with NSA. I can't actually talk with her yet because quite a few people want to talk with me about NSA contracting and give me business pitches and cards. After politely responding to their inquiries, I finally meet with the company rep with whom I'd actually scheduled time. We pick a quiet place in the lobby next to the Internet terminals so that she can run her demo showing different levels of the product. It's an interesting technology, but the demo is really getting drawn out. The event organizer takes pity on me and asks if I want to go out to dinner with him and a former marine now working for the Marine Corps as a civilian. I gratefully accept, and the demo wraps up.

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Date Posted: Jan 15, 2009 | Last Modified: May 9, 2012 | Last Reviewed: May 9, 2012