By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - When the Department of Defense decided it needed a device that could detect heartbeats from hundreds of feet away, it didn't know where to look. So it turned to some tech-savvy friends: venture capitalists.
Using its little-known "DeVenCI" -- Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative -- the Department of Defense can tap into a network of venture capitalists when it needs new ideas. The reasoning: Pentagon types aren't experts in ferreting out emerging technology, and companies with technology that might help the Pentagon don't know how to reach it.
Enter Silicon Valley matchmakers who serve as consultants for two-year terms. Through their colleagues, they get to hear about companies and technologies they might not otherwise be aware of, and the Pentagon gets to tap their expertise. Since the program launched in 2006, partners from firms including Kleiner Perkins, Greylock Partners, and the Mayfield Fund have participated.
"The government is looking for solutions beyond what they typically find from defense contractors," said Matt Howard of Norwest Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California, one of the 25 venture capitalists currently working with DeVenCI. His recommendations include Sentilla, a company that helps data centers reduce energy use, and Avere, which provides data storage.
Conceived in 2005, DeVenCI was intended to look for ways to slash the cost of building equipment from scratch. Many of its needs since have tended toward the prosaic -- efficient data centers and renewable energy for instance. But some aren't, such as heartbeat-sensors, which eventually led the program to Virginia-based Digital Signal.
Then this week, the hitherto obscure five-year-old initiative received a little unwelcome attention. The Wall Street Journal reported one of its advisers -- Kevin Kopczynski of RockPort Capital -- had pitched a company from his firm's own portfolio: Solyndra, the failed solar firm at the center of a controversy over the government's renewable energy financing programs.
Solyndra went bankrupt last month after receiving a $535 million Department of Energy loan in 2009. Critics have questioned the White House's close ties to investors in the company.
But the fledgling program dodged a bullet. Solyndra made it through months worth of vetting before the Pentagon learned the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and dropped the solar firm from consideration for a $1 million pilot program, the Journal reported. A Navy spokeswoman confirmed Solyndra's participation in its DeVenCI workshops.
PURCHASES, NOT INVESTMENTS
Close shaves aside, defense department officials think they might have the beginnings of a formula to go high-tech.
The program's VCs specialize in a broad range of investment areas and serve as unpaid consultants for two-year terms. They in turn work with a small team of full-time DeVEnCI staff members.
Not all of the program's needs are geared toward direct warfare and more efficient bloodshed. It was the call for solar technology earlier this year -- to power, say, army bases -- that provided RockPort's opening.
Because the government is increasingly facing the same problems as enterprise -- including malware and dealing with large amounts of data -- it makes sense to look in the same places businesses often find solutions, VCs argued.
"There had to be commercial technologies that went a long way toward solving problems the DOD faced," said DeVenCI adviser Roger Novak of Novak Biddle in Bethesda, Maryland.
Typically, advisers recommend companies outside their own portfolios, VCs involved with the program say, but it's not unheard-of to pitch one of their own bets.
Unlike an in-house INQTel fund at the Central Intelligence Agency that invests directly in companies, the DeVenCi program seeks to purchase field-ready products and services rather than investing.
"The goal is not to provide R&D funding," a DeVenCI spokeswoman said. She said the program is contracting with about 25 companies that it found through the program.
Around Silicon Valley, there's not much concern about the government snooping around companies and getting an early look at their technology, said Geoff Yang, a partner at Redpoint Ventures who is not involved in DeVenCI. The biggest concern is that a young company might end up tailoring its product to the military, he said, in a way that wouldn't be applicable to other customers. "The government is a market of one," he said.
VC's VISIT MILITARY BRANCHES
It took a year or two for the program to find its feet, and identify appropriate VCs, given that the freewheeling culture of Silicon Valley can clash with the rigid practices of the military.
One venture capitalist experienced in the ways of Washington recalled a presentation dealing with computer systems attached to the Global Information Grid, a military communications initiative, when another venture capitalist unfamiliar with the military chimed in with a complaint.
"This is so general," the more experienced VC recalled his novice colleague complaining. "I need to know how many computers you run, and what's connected to what." A stunned pause ensued before the presenter composed himself and told the VC he couldn't disclose that information. The less experienced VC left the group after a single two-year term.
Another early glitch involved sending the VCs reams of data to pour through, until the DeVenCI office realized it made more sense to have the participating VCs visit various branches of the military and evaluate their needs.
Sometimes, the visits provide vivid illustrations of those needs. Don Rainey, a partner at Grotech Ventures in Vienna, Virginia, recalls a group of VCs attending a training session for marines in Twenty Nine Palms, Calif., in the hope the excursion would spark ideas for technology for use in hostile environments.
The VCs watched the exercise unfold in a Hollywood-like set designed to look like a street in the Middle East, complete with actors playing locals.
As Marines patrolled, shopkeepers quickly started closing up their stores, and then an abandoned car blew up. An actress who was also an amputee flew through the air screaming, fake blood pouring from her missing leg.
"It's so moving, to think of what they do, the risks they're subjected to," Rainey said of the Marines.
(Reporting by Sarah McBride, editing by Bernard Orr)