How academia, industry and government combine to solve the nation's problems

By bringing together leaders from academia, industry and the federal government, DEFTECH is helping lay the groundwork for solving some of the nation's most complex national security problems.

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By Abbey Slattery, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Military Business Center (NCMBC).
North Carolina has a fast-growing reputation as a successful business environment, even ranking first in the nation for its strong business climate. While the area around the Triangle may be best known for startups and biotech, the state is also a powerhouse for federal contracts.

The Defense Technology Transition Office (DEFTECH), an entity of the NCMBC, works with companies, academic institutions and military installations across the state to match technology developments with federal needs for research, development and technology transition. Technology transition is the process by which technology deemed to be of significant use to the operational military community is transitioned from a science and technology or a commercial off-the-shelf (COTs) innovation into a funded prototype, tested by DoD, and then added as a modification to an existing program of record.

The state’s academic reputation is already well-known, with 53 colleges and universities – including 10 HBCUs – and 58 community colleges. But since it’s also home to seven major military installations with 18,000+ veterans who enter the commercial workforce annually, there’s a uniquely synergistic opportunity for national security innovation.

“DEFTECH includes professionals from the UNC and Duke University systems as well as several community colleges through the NCMBC that are all in our network. We send out opportunities, notices and announcements to keep them informed. We also work very closely with the university systems on some of the bigger projects, so if we're putting on an event, we oftentimes invite leaders from these universities to tell us what they're doing, and we connect them with our innovators,” said Denny Lewis, director of DEFTECH. “For example, we had some people from Duke talk about cyber security. We had the professor in charge of the Center of Excellence for Autonomy at NC A&T who recently discussed the work that they are doing with autonomous vehicles. We have many examples, but we include our university systems and their research and development in our events just as we do with government speakers.”

The universities and colleges around the state already have significant federal opportunities, and DEFTECH hopes to aid in that growth. In fact, as of 2020, Duke has millions of dollars in DoD research funds. Additionally, the UNC system currently leads a number of national centers of excellence, including national security innovations like artificial intelligence and data analytics, unmanned systems, advanced materials and energy.

Aside from events that bolster visibility for these institutions, DEFTECH also has a podcast, “Defense Technology Talks,” that features interviews with key academics and researchers across the state. DEFTECH’s weekly coffee calls, which are free to members, offer additional opportunities to bring innovators together.

“It all goes back to our mission of enabling the North Carolina innovation ecosystem to address complex national security problems,” said Bob Burton, senior manager of DEFTECH. “For the coffee calls, at the beginning of the month, we bring in government officials or people from academia who understand what the problem is. Then they talk to us about the problem, and later on in the month, we have discussions and presentations by our companies about how we can solve that problem. It's all part of that innovation ecosystem and our mission is to enable that across various platforms.”

Coffee calls and the podcast help provide platforms for regular dialogue among innovators statewide. However, since DEFTECH is always keeping a pulse on what’s going on in research and development companies and major academic research institutes, DoD officials will sometimes reach out directly to the DEFTECH team to see if they know of anyone within the ecosystem that could meet a specific military need.

DEFTECH also has a relationship with the NC Department of Commerce and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which helps bring all of these moving pieces and partnerships together. The “Frontline of the Future” campaign is a collaboration among DEFTECH, State elements, the Department of Commerce, private sector associations, the UNC System and Duke to promote the state’s thriving dual-use innovation ecosystem, to expand DoD, industry and academic partnerships, and to highlight North Carolina’s expansive commitment to national defense.

In addition to universities and colleges, DEFTECH also works with entities like the U.S. Army Research Office, the BARDA DRIVe Accelerator, and several venture centers and incubators. By bringing academics, innovators and federal contacts together, DEFTECH creates mutually beneficial relationships that advance national security. Of course, DEFTECH’s industry partners are key to everything the organization does, and DEFTECH offers many free services to all participants.

“The DEFTECH vision is that North Carolina is the frontline of the future, supporting the nation's defense and homeland security. The landscape is continuously changing, and we must continue to change with it,” said Burton. “We must be adaptive and agile and have a community-centered approach where all work together to support national security and grow North Carolina’s defense sector. The problems continue to increase, and they continue in their complexity. Our companies and academics can help solve those problems right here in North Carolina.”

This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Military Business Center (NCMBC).

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