Establishing partnerships between startups and large companies can be awkward and complicated. Bureaucracy at large companies often results in slow discovery processes, complicated vetting and legal requirements that can drag on for months. Startups don’t have the time or the personnel to deal with these lengthy processes that distract from the core mission of the company. Yet both sides are incentivized to work together. Startups need market reach, customer relationships and the scale large businesses offer. Large businesses need access to leading edge innovation, intellectual property and agility that startups thrive on.
Northrop Grumman has been experimenting with new techniques aimed at expediting the establishment of partnerships. Quickly bringing the latest technology to the warfighter is becoming extremely critical. With the enormous and widening gap between commercial R&D and defense R&D, it is incumbent upon the defense prime contractors like Northrop Grumman to tap into adjacent technologies.
In recent years, the company has teamed up with smaller ventures; for example, the company worked with Not Impossible Labs to create and distribute vaccines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2019, the large aerospace firm teamed up with smaller manufacturer Rocket Lab to launch a satellite from a remote spot in New Zealand.
A Hackathon and a Sprint
More recently, Northrop Grumman held a hackathon with Deepwave Digital, the creator of a software-defined radio optimized to execute deep learning algorithms for signal processing and signal identification applications. Last summer, forty Northrop Grumman engineers sat in rapt attention as John Ferguson, CEO of Deepwave Digital, delivered a lecture about radio frequency (RF) machine learning. Twelve hours later, the engineers demonstrated their neural networks tackling a real world problem while running on Deepwave hardware in their own labs.
The time from initial meeting to hackathon was only about 30 days. That’s light speed in the world of defense technology.
In the following months, a productive relationship was solidified. Exposing Northrop Grumman engineers to the Deepwave Digital development environment, by actually using it, translated to immediate benefits to the startup. Putting together the demos and curriculum for the hackathon forced Deepwave to put together a user experience that they now can share at other venues and accelerate adoption.
Ferguson says, “Training and deploying RF machine learning as algorithms is complex, and the Northrop Grumman engineers had a wide variety of expertise. This forced us to put together a streamlined experience where we can enable newcomers to get relevant, first-hand experience with our product.”
The larger company benefited as well. Now, Northrop Grumman and its Applied Autonomy group have a new tool with which to develop solutions to some of its customers’ hard problems. “We’re really looking forward to some collaborative work with them in the coming year,” says Dr. Mark Milam, Northrop Grumman Fellow.
Relationships like these enable Northrop Grumman engineers to gain access to discriminating, cutting-edge technology fast and apply it to national defense problems. This will soon become second nature.
Northrop Grumman has job openings working on exciting partnerships like this one.