Recently, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Silicon Valley hoping to help the nation's capital tap the innovative spirit of the world's digital capital. He met with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, power-brunched with the financial seers at Andreessen Horowitz and lectured at Stanford.
His access to Big Digital is natural since he represents Big Government. But Carter, who is a remarkable role model himself, may have missed something important.
Government doctrine that "bigger is better" is a cultural trope, repeated so often that government big shots only think of corporate big shots when trying to solve a problem. Sometimes, the biggest challenges should be placed in the hands of the smallest innovators, the very sort who laid the groundwork for Silicon's Big Digital.
As the CEO of a small business in the defense sector, I was hoping Carter would visit the tiny wooden shed behind 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, which is considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley. There, a pair of 20-somethings, with just $528 and their own big ideas, formed the Hewlett-Packard Corp.
Bill Hewlett slept on a cot in a nearby garden shed while working on technology that would go on to be crucial for the allies in World War II.
Had Carter's staff arranged a stop at that shed, he would have been tracing the footsteps of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who have also paid their respects to this humble abode. Every major player in Silicon Valley remembers when he or she thrived on their own ingenuity, big dreams, fierce determination and little else.
The venture capital crowd on Menlo Park, California's Sand Hill Road scours the earth in search of such raw, can-do visionaries, knowing that innovation thrives in small isolated places far from the big foot of bureaucratic negation.
No one knows better than Carter that big government is inherently risk-averse because in all bureaucracies, the penalty for failure is far greater than the reward for success. The bigger the bureaucracy, the truer this axiom.
What's worse is that even a successful breakthrough causes disruption and can hurt the career of its government sponsor. For the establishment, it is safer to discredit the innovator than to act. Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, "It's better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally." This applies for both big government and big industry.
Big Digital understands the power and promise of small. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, frequently emphasizes the importance of an individual and small teams in creating breakthroughs. Google places 10 percent of its research budget in such rare people and then protects them in a separate organization, Google X. A major part of Google's growth strategy is to find and acquire small teams with big ideas.
How can Carter enlist the full power of Silicon Valley, including the small innovators? First, he needs to promote innovation by creating a safe place where new ideas are welcome and brainstorming — with its share of good and bad ideas — is accepted. The Defense Department may have such a place already.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was created to nurture new ideas. But recently, budget pressures have forced DARPA to devote much of its energies to support huge, plodding, pet Pentagon programs rather than finding and funding innovators.
It is time to rebuild the wall between DARPA and the civilian and military bureaucracies. Make DARPA the haven it once was: An environment where innovators can flourish for the eventual benefit of our country.
Once DARPA returns to its original role as the champion of innovation and innovators, the Pentagon also needs to streamline the procurement process so that new ideas can realize their full military promise quickly, instead of dying a slow, expensive death at the hands of skittish bureaucrats.
Make it easier to succeed. Why should merely submitting a bid take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars? And why, if a small business wins, can the government claim the free use of its intellectual property? Defending against eminent domain is prohibitive for any start-up or small business. Why must it cost so much and be so risky for investors to show up and serve our nation?
Cash and time are all that stands between success and failure for small visionaries. Fortunately, the Department of Defense can provide these ingredients. Innovation starts with people, often working in a tiny wooden garage against all odds. These are your people, Carter. Mobilize them, too.
Badenoch is CEO of Badenoch LLC, a company that creates intellectual property in defense and energy and has been a supplier to DARPA, the US Army and Marines, and the Office of Naval Research.