Saj Huq, head of innovation at Plexal discusses national security amongst nation states, and the need for better technology, ideas and innovations
National security isn’t just about defending the UK from traditional threats posed by nation states. It’s more complex and multi-faceted than ever, covering risks to our socioeconomic prosperity, key supply chains, critical infrastructure, and way of life.
Nation states are using disinformation as a tool to cause societal unrest and when direct conflict does break out, as it has in Ukraine, it’s being waged online as well as on the streets. The business of defending the UK requires a new, ecosystem-based approach that fosters collaboration and harnesses the most advanced emerging technologies to support the UK in achieving and maintaining strategic advantage in the long run.
To manage these challenges, we must get better at funnelling the best technology, ideas and innovations to the national security sector. The government can’t just spend its way to mission success. It needs innovation, collaboration and intellect.
Making the national security sector more attractive for innovators
We also need to make the sector more attractive for innovators. The existing procurement methods and supply chain aren’t dynamic enough for today’s national security landscape. National security – for obvious reasons – has always been a tightly guarded sector with high barriers to entry for new players and startups.
That’s why a handful of big, trusted companies have been suppliers for decades and are awarded mammoth contracts that cover the design, implementation and operation of platforms, which are intended to last for many years.
These companies have a hugely important role, but we also need to harness the power of the UK’s thriving startup ecosystem to bring to market the software and hardware that the sector needs for the future. A key part of this is about putting the right conditions in place to enable them to build capability with the established entities already present in the sector.
What are the market challenges to overcome?
This is no secret but there are still some blockers and market challenges to overcome. First, we should get the startup ecosystem excited about this big, bold, and hugely important mission. We can do this by sharing the mission of the government with industry more widely. Fintech is the roaring success story of the UK’s tech sector and it’s usually the go-to sector for startups to target. But startups that are developing world-leading machine learning, mobility, and quantum computing solutions, as just a few examples, could point their tech towards a national security mission to drive both profit and purpose at the same time.
Take the new Growth Plan revealed by the chancellor and the Long-Term Investment for Technology & Science (LIFTS) competition. Unleashing innovation through technology is essential and this will give startups the support and investment they need to scale at a particularly challenging time. But can we go a step further and direct these innovators towards national security through such initiatives?
Secondly, we must get better at communicating the market opportunity to investors. The current investment ecosystem favours startups that have an easy, clear and quick route to market where there are either big recurring contracts in the pipeline or the startup sells directly to the end user.
With national security, processes are more complicated. There’s often a high degree of ambiguity to navigate, the end use cases are often obfuscated and a startup is likely going to need to collaborate with a larger company to integrate a solution into an existing technology stack.
Investors need to understand the dynamics of the sector just as much as startups – and there aren’t enough investors with a clear national security remit who are willing to provide patient capital. That capital is essential for sustaining a growing ecosystem that’s willing to collaborate in this space.
Finally, we need to put the guardrails in place that enable fair, fast and mission-oriented collaboration between an agile startup ecosystem and the class of established prime suppliers. To say that the old guard is irrelevant would be utterly wrong – and dangerous. Startups will struggle to find their way into the sector at scale on their own and the existing supply chain’s R&D expertise and budgets can be a force enabler for the whole ecosystem.
Bringing in other innovators
Through meaningful partnerships, they can build processes and systems that bring in startups and other innovators.
The government’s role should be to incentivise its current suppliers and the investor community to get on board – and to buy British technology developed with British security needs in mind. The mission is always moving, and the national security sector needs to start moving with the times.
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