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3/28/2006
08:45 AM
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In-Q-Tel: The CIA's Tech Matchmaker

Why not have mini versions of the CIA's investment arm for many federal agencies?

A recent announcement brought a good idea back into the limelight: In-Q-Tel, a CIA-backed investment arm, recently bought a piece of a data-cleansing software company. In-Q-Tel's been around since 1999, and this is its 90th or so investment in a tech firm. But the news got me thinking that this model could be a good idea for many federal agencies, not just the intelligence community.

The basic idea is that In-Q-Tel, which is technically not part of the CIA although the 'Agency' remains its biggest client, scours the globe for cool high-tech companies that make products it thinks will be useful to the intelligence community in general and to the CIA in particular. Key technology areas beyond the obvious (security, that is) include search, visualization, integration, and geospatial software, wireless, nanotech, semiconductors, and sensors, among others.

This brings to mind something I heard at a recent government conference. The problem faced by many in the intelligence and general military communities is not with unearthing more data -- there's plenty of data. In fact, there's too much stinkin' data. The challenge is turning the data they already have into information that is understandable and actionable by humans.

It's here that something like In-Q-Tel can make a big difference. Because once it finds this cool technology, it puts the provider through the paces any established venture firm will. If the vendor is found worthy, In-Q-Tel invests in the company, or in a specific product or technology. If the vendor is in turn bought up, which happened when 3-D vendor @Last Software was purchased by Google, In-Q-Tel reinvests that windfall into other finds.

The most recent investment was in Initiate, which makes a software used in healthcare and other industries. Identity Hub helps cleanse data by finding and eliminating duplicate and fragmented records, multiple identifications, transpositions, misspellings, nicknames, aliases, address inconsistencies and identity misrepresentations. Its goal is to instantly find and accurately link all the records about a person, household, organization, or other object across disparate systems and data sources.

You can see how this sort of thing might be useful to the CIA.

In fact, this kind of VC organization could have broader use throughout the government. Why not create a mini-me version of this for each of the major federal agencies, with an oversight process similar to the one that already exists for In-Q-Tel? No need to reinvent the wheel here, but it seems to me that this kind of targeted tech-search might be just the thing for agencies that are stuck with 20-year-old technology, outdated thinking, or the worst of both these worlds.

What do you think?

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