Following in his boss’s footsteps, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter stopped by Austin startup incubator Capital Factory on Thursday to tout the defense department’s efforts better engage the tech community -- and said he was considering opening an office in Austin.
“We are going to increase our presence here in Austin,” Carter said during a news conference at Capital Factory, adding that he wasn’t sure “what form that would take.”
Last year the Pentagon opened an office in Silicon Valley, part of a broader effort to bolster the department’s technological prowess. Carter said the Austin visit is part of a “quest” to have more people in the tech industry work on defense projects or directly for the department.
Carter’s visit also coincides with a push by President Barack Obama to strengthen the government’s ties in the tech industry. Obama visited Capital Factory in 2013 and recently was a keynote speaker at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, where much of his talk focused on how technology could be used to tackle big societal problems.
During his Austin visit Carter toured parts of the University of Texas at Austin campus, meeting with UT System Chancellor day Bill McRaven, and then spent the afternoon at Capital Factory.
“Everybody I talked to today said it’s a great city to live in if you’re an innovator,” he said.
At the startup incubator he heard pitches from three companies that are either based here or have ties to Austin and develop products that have possible defense applications. He also met privately with tech industry leaders.
Tom Markusic, CEO of Firefly Space Systems, was one of the companies that pitched to Carter. Firefly is a rocket manufacturer based in Cedar Park. The company is trying to break into a market for small rockets to take small satellites into orbit.
Carter asked several detailed followup questions about Markusic’s technology, joking that he had “mixed feelings” about their technology because they were “taking our people.”
Later, during the news conference, Carter said the defense department also uses small satellites and noted that the commercialization of space is a “generally a good thing” but that it means foreign governments have the same opportunity.
“What I am doing is experimenting with different ways of reaching out,” Carter said. “My presence here is an example of that.”
He said he wants the Pentagon to be more “persistently present” in innovative hubs, whether it is Austin or Boston or Silicon Valley.
The federal government has struggled with its perception of being overly bureaucratic, slow to embrace change and with concerns that department budgets are subjected to partisan whims.
The recent visits by Obama and Carter are attempts to change that perception.
Carter said during his Austin visit that the tech industry didn’t seem “uninterested” in working with the government. “I find innovative people very interested in working with the feds,” he said. Carter said in contrast to previous generations, Americans working in the tech industry today haven’t necessary “passed through the Armed Force” and lack a familiarity with defense work.
Carter’s visit also came on the same day the Department of Defense revealed more details behind its “Hack the Pentagon” program, in which it recruits hackers to find vulnerabilities. First announced in early March, the department said Thursday it is partnering with San Francisco-based HackerOne to run its bug bounty program.
This type of program is a common practice for tech companies but is a first for the Defense Department. Approved hackers will be given specific instructions of what public-facing sites to examine, according to Katie Moussouris, a policy adviser to HackerOne and the Department of Defense. She launched the bug bounty program at Microsoft.
Moussouris, who was also at the Capital Factory offices on Thursday, called it a “historic moment” in engaging with hackers and a “modernization of the approach to security.”
The hacking program starts April 18 and will run for 20 days. The total prize money budget is $150,000 and prizes will be awarded based on the scope of the vulnerability.