While much of its clientele is in the national defense space, the SAP NS2-backed collaborative is hoping to make progress on other government problems such as cloud management and supply chain security in 2021.
Coming up on a year since opening a physical lab space in Chantilly, Va., the formerly online-only NS2 Labs has yet to fully realize its purpose as a collaboration space for private and public partners to solve problems for government.
Backed by SAP NS2, the U.S. national security-focused subsidiary of German software company SAP, the lab opened in January 2020 but promptly had to close in March when COVID-19 hit. The lab reopened in a limited capacity in August, and some administrators are sanguine about resuming full operations in 2021.
When they started NS2 Labs as a virtual space in summer 2018, Chief Strategy Officer Brian Paget and his colleagues envisioned it as a way for tech companies, research organizations and government agencies to collaborate without firewalls and proprietary barriers getting in the way. It was also a means to connect governments with smaller vendors who had potentially useful solutions, but not the experience or necessary clearances to do business with the public sector.
“It’s the last-mile solution. I’ve worked in software companies supporting the government for a long time, and it’s always taking the commercial solution into the government space that’s a challenge,” Paget said. “We’re trying to drive more innovation in the government space, remove those barriers of entry, because we’re a lot more mature and have more experience in delivering government solutions than a lot of these smaller companies.”
In the virtual realm, NS2 Labs offered a suite of tools for software development, communication and crowdsourcing ideas, hosted on Amazon Web Services' GovCloud. Paget said the lab’s parent company, SAP NS2, is most intimate with defense and national security interests, but it has also worked on other projects for the public sector as well as the commercial space, aerospace and infrastructure industries.
With the addition of the physical lab in January, co-located in a 60,000-square foot SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), NS2 Labs gives partners access to hands-on development tools, professional consultation, an environment for back-and-forth and a place to meet new customers. Chief Technical Officer Kyle Rice said what these collaborators work on depends on what gets approved by the lab’s “idea studio,” a repository for suggestions from private and public partners. The lab’s website lists nine co-innovation partners, 56 crowd-sourced submissions completed in the past two years and 16 projects currently in progress. These have included cybersecurity tools; a range of IoT implementations such as SafePass, for COVID tracking; a faster neural net system that companies could use to deploy an AI; and a product for supply chain security that can track and identify the source of every component in a customer’s system.
“The idea is, if you’re a partner, and you’re working on site with someone down at the tax office and you say, ‘hey, I sure wish I had a capability that did X,’ then you could submit that, and we’ll figure out how to fund that and move that forward,” Rice said.
Ronald Huff, the CEO of SafePass, endorsed NS2 Labs’ approach to innovation in a public statement on its website.
“To gain the best market feedback and increase efficiency in getting to market, developers shouldn’t build a new product in a dark room somewhere and then introduce it,” the statement said. “It is critical to iteratively design the product while simultaneously collecting feedback from customers and end users. I’m very grateful for NS2 because it is an organic opportunity for SafePass, which also offers an array of mutual benefit while developing a brand new, industry-changing product together.”
But while it was intended to expedite innovation, NS2 Labs has had a slow year, having to adapt like everyone else. Rice said that from January to March, the lab saw four or five visits a week. From March through August, there was nobody but a skeleton staff working in the building, and since then maybe two customers a month as some governments have started going back to work. The lab used to host hackathon contests of several consecutive 18-hour days, and it had to pivot those back to a virtual environment spread over four weeks.
“It has changed a bit about the problems we’re being asked to solve,” Rice added. “We’ve done more things around COVID tracking. We’ve done more things around supply chain tracking. We have an interesting project going on right now about how to return to an office environment more safely.”
In 2021, Rice said NS2 Labs hopes to focus on STEM initiatives to get more students involved. Given the unknowns, however, for the foreseeable future it will have to double down on the virtual aspects of operations. The need for adaptability isn’t going away any time soon, but that’s why they created this space for governments, major vendors and small tech companies to begin with.
“We’re willing to build things and solve problems and demo them without funding (from partners). Essentially our goal with Labs is to do enough to prove a problem is solvable,” he said. “That’s really the key: Rather than saying, OK, the government is asking to buy something that’s already baked and they’re already aware of and it’s already in their rolodex … to say, we’ll do that proof of concept to show you that we really think it can be done. This little partner can help solve your problem.”
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.