STUTTGART, Germany — NATO’s new technology accelerator will launch its inaugural challenges next week, meant to draw out innovative solutions from startups that can help solve real-world issues for the alliance.
The Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, or DIANA, will open up applications for its first set of challenges on June 19, when companies can compete for hundreds of thousands of euros in grant funds.
The hope is to have those selected startups “up and running” with grant support by the end of 2023, said Deeph Chana, DIANA’s managing director.
The technology challenges — in reflecting DIANA’s primary mission — are meant to support innovative startups and small businesses that are focusing on dual-use science and technology solutions that could help with critical defense issues, Chana recently told reporters in a virtual briefing.
“We want to attract these innovators to the problems that we have in security and defense, but also we want to look at how these [security and defense] problems are set in a much broader context,” he said. “When we talk about defense, what we’re thinking about is how science and technology can help us, for example, to lower the chances of conflict erupting, as well as having the kind of tools and systems that we need to be able to resolve conflict in more efficient and effective manners in the future.”
What are the challenges?
The initial set of challenges will focus on energy resilience and energy systems; the secure transfer of information and data; and sensing and surveillance capabilities.
For the first challenge area, DIANA is interested in solutions that help supply energy in a more agile, innovative way, and also how to secure the networks and infrastructure of energy systems, Chana said.
The second area pertains to ensuring “communications between different points are actually secure,” he added. “In some cases, one of the things we’re really interested in there is — in situations where you don’t have a lot of energy, or you don’t have any bandwidth, or you have difficult comms — how can you still do that security problem and keep those lines of communication secure.”
The sensing and surveillance challenge has to do with building “next-generation detectors, and systems of detectors and sensors, to effectively give us an ability to inspect difficult environments,” he said. Specifically, DIANA is interested in the challenge of underwater detection and sensing capabilities, he added.
NATO expects about 30 startups to participate in the first set of challenges. Those who make it through the first phase will each receive €100,000 (about U.S. $108,000) in grants, and those who succeed in making it to the second phase will each receive €300,000 (about U.S. $324,000) in grant money for a six-month period, Chana said.
A panel will evaluate participants. The panel includes investors, subject matter experts in the challenge areas, members of academia and representatives of the end-user community, he added.
This year’s round of challenges will take place at five DIANA accelerator sites on both sides of the Atlantic, according to NATO. Future challenges will take place at other accelerator locations around the alliance’s member nations, and eventually expand to include a greater number of startup participants.
NATO touted that benefits for those selected include the fact that DIANA will not ask for intellectual property or equity, but rather wants to “maximize the growth opportunities for innovators without any typical restrictions.” Participating in the tech challenges will also offer exposure to a trusted investor network — in particular the nascent NATO Innovation Fund, collaboration opportunities with allied end users and pathways to 31 allied markets.
Meanwhile, DIANA itself continues to grow since it was formally established last year, and will become operational with the tech challenge launch on June 19. To date, the accelerator is based at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, and another headquarters is planned for Halifax, Canada, Chana said. A regional hub is to open in Tallinn, Estonia. DIANA also hosts a network of almost 100 accelerator sites and test centers across the alliance.
The accelerator currently hosts about 30 staff, Chana said, with an additional 80 personnel expected to join within the next 12-18 months. That doesn’t include personnel based at the various DIANA accelerator sites within the alliance, he noted.
To start, DIANA is operating with a €50 million annual budget, Chana said, while emphasizing the organization is currently operating within a “pilot program.”
“DIANA is the first startup of DIANA,” he said. “Through the pilot process, we will be also learning and developing.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.