How Austin startups are shaping the future of the military

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On one screen, David Zakariaie watches a flight simulator piloted by an employee; on another, a live video stream of the employee’s eyeball as it darts back and forth, up and down, inside a virtual reality headset.

“It’s still creepy,” he says, even after years of developing the technology. “Still very creepy.”

Zakariaie, the 21-year-old CEO of the Austin-based startup Senseye, installed eyeball-facing cameras in VR headsets as part of his project to change the way the U.S. Air Force trains its pilots.

The cameras read changes in a user’s pupils and irises and translate the data into a real-time graph of what’s called the pilot’s cognitive load, which refers to how much work the brain is doing while learning to fly.

That, Zakariaie says, allows for better analysis of the learning process and can dramatically cut down the amount of time it takes a new pilot to make it through flight school. 

Zakariaie has been working on the idea since he was 15. “Senseye originally started off as my 10th grade high school science fair project,” he said.

He formed a company in 2015 in California and moved it to the Capital Factory in downtown Austin last year. He’s since moved to a bigger office space about a block away, but while he was there he provided a demo for a group of Air Force officials. They liked Senseye, and in February the first group of future Air Force pilots started using the technology in flight school. 

That deal was, in many ways, a precursor to the Air Force innovation hub that calls the Capital Factory home as of Wednesday.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson spoke at the grand opening of the newest AFWERX office Wednesday morning. That segment of the Air Force, which Wilson created last year, is focused on finding private-sector solutions to Air Force problems.

AFWERX already has two other offices in the U.S., in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., but this will be the first in a city that also houses another military innovation office, DIUx, or Defense Innovation Unit Experimental.

That means Austin startups are uniquely situated to develop and sell the kinds of technologies the military is looking for.

Maj. Zach Walker runs the DIUx Austin office, also headquartered at the Capital Factory downtown, which opened in September 2016. DIUx’s mission is similar to that of AFWERX, but it pays startups to solve problems for all military branches, not just the Air Force.

“There’s companies that are doing amazing things for national security that may not even realize it yet,” Walker said.

Walker facilitated the meeting last year between Air Force personnel and Zakariaie that led to the deal. He’s also developed three more deals through the DIUx Austin office with companies in town.

Austin-based software company SparkCognition sold analysis software to the Air Force to help in the budgeting process, Defense News reported in August. A second agreement saw the company Pivotal, owned by Dell Technologies, provide mapping software to aid in aerial refueling, saving 350,000 pounds of fuel per week. The third DIUx Austin deal is with a company called Fjord, which has offices all over the world, including in Austin. Fjord’s VR technology is helping the Navy plan and rehearse missions, Walker said.

DIUx also has offices in Boston, at the Pentagon, and where the idea started, in Silicon Valley. Combined, all four offices have spent $232 million on 71 deals with private companies.

“Many of these companies don’t want to be government contractors, because it’s usually a really slow process,” Walker said. “We offer a way to move much faster.”

The presence of both DIUx and AFWERX in Austin puts the city in a unique position as the Army searches for a home for its Futures Command headquarters. Austin is one of five finalist cities for the command center that will employ around 500 people and help the Army figure out emerging threats and how to respond to them.

Col. Pat Seiber, spokesman for the Futures Command Task Force, said access to a robust technology infrastructure was a factor in reducing the possible command locations from 150 at the start of the search to the five in contention now.

The other finalists — Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Raliegh, North Carolina — also have strong tech sectors. It’s a “delightful dilemma” to have to pick between them, he said.

The Army won’t announce a final decision until mid-July, most likely, he said. And while there are many other factors to consider, Austin is the only one with two military innovation offices already operating.

“The bottom line is we want to partner with the other [armed] services and other [government] agencies,” Seiber told KXAN.

Austin also provides easy access to other military resources, just a short drive from San Antonio and Fort Hood. The Washington Post reported Tuesday the Army is testing out artificial intelligence software, procured from a Chicago company through DIUx, at Fort Hood. 

“That’s a big part of being here in Austin and Boston and Silicon Valley and D.C.,” Walker said, “is, ‘What can these companies offer today to solve problems today?'”

Zakariaie’s solution, he says, can cut down the time it takes to train a pilot from more than a year to six months. The first class of Air Force pilots to use his simulator are just about on track to complete flight school in August.

“The government has a reputation of being a terrible customer for a startup to have,” he said, but that hasn’t been his experience working through the innovation offices. Instead of a slow, grinding process before a check is written, AFWERX and DIUx move quickly, a crucial need for startups that might not last long without paying customers.

Plus, at least for this segment of the federal government, he says, they pay their bills on time.

“I think there is definitely a long-term partnership there.”

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