Military innovation groups open new collaborative center in Austin


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Three military innovation groups that have made Austin home are now joining forces to create a collaborative environment with local startups at the Capital Factory, a tech incubator downtown.

The Center for Defense Innovation opens officially on Thursday. Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen and Army Futures Command (AFC) General John M. Murray will give remarks at the grand opening after watching demonstrations from startups that are benefiting from military partnerships.

One of those companies is Valkyrie Intelligence, an artificial intelligence company in talks with AFC about how the Army can use its technology.

Valkyrie’s founder and CEO, Charlie Burgoyne, showed KXAN a demonstration of AI tracking technology Wednesday at the two-year-old company’s offices in east Austin. Using a simple traffic camera, the AI tech can tell cars apart based on small differences, then recognize those vehicles if they show back up in the camera’s view.

“We teach this computer to recognize objects much the same way your brain recognizes objects,” Burgoyne explained.

The tech is useful for tracking just about anything — vehicles, people, even enemy soldiers, “which is really a big value-add for Army Futures Command.”

Austin is a good fit for the new innovation center, he said, because unlike other tech cities whose companies are driven by growth, Austin is still a value-driven marketplace. Valkyrie derives its values from Burgoyne’s family history; both his grandfather and great-uncle were physicists who worked with the U.S. government, and he feels strongly about the mission of protecting soldiers.

“AFC realized that and they realized that the best way to capitalize on that is to bring their innovation down here,” he said.

The new center will house AFC’s Army Applications Lab, as well as representatives from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation hub. Entrepreneurs will be able to meet and mingle with the military personnel to discuss ideas and to bring new technology to the defense sector.

KXAN has reported on each of the innovation groups, but the combined space represents the next big step in turning Austin’s startup culture loose on issues facing the U.S. military.

“We want to get into deep conversations about the art of the possible,” said Jay Harrison, command innovation officer for AFC. “How can new technologies be applied to the things that we’re trying to solve and the things that the Army cares about?”

Startups that are working with any of the branches will have dedicated space on the floor, Harrison said, and a section of the floor will belong to defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

The Center for Defense Innovation will be different from a traditional military environment. “I mean, you can’t just walk into the Pentagon and start poking around,” Harrison said. 

That’s what the innovation teams want from the Capital Factory space, an open environment that allows entrepreneurs to stop in and collaborate with the military.

Burgoyne believes the presence of the innovation hubs will lead to more partnerships and solutions for other companies as well as his own. The AI technology, he said, has applications beyond warfare, including more holistic approaches to the soldier. 

The tech can track information to help the military identify who’s most at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, or help soldiers transition into civilian life more easily by identifying jobs that would be a good fit, Burgoyne said.

“A lot of people are concerned right now with AFC coming in that it’s going to constitute a big cultural shift for Austin,” he said. “What I actually think is more likely to happen is that the DOD (Department of Defense) adopts more of Austin’s culture than Austin has to adopt the DOD culture.”

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