Military R&D lab taps MIT tech leader
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was in Cambridge to announce details of a new military R&D lab. The lab is part of a broader push by the Defense Department to fund innovative technology. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Curt Woodward
Globe Staff

The Defense Department has tapped a leader from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to anchor the Cambridge office of a new military R&D lab, part of a push by the Pentagon to more quickly harness innovations from the tech sector.

Bernadette Johnson will serve as chief science officer of the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, known as DIUx, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at an event in Cambridge Tuesday. Johnson, who has previously studied chemical and biological defense, most recently served as the Lincoln Lab’s chief technology officer.

Cambridge is the second location for the DIUx program, which opened a Silicon Valley office last year. Carter appointed new leadership for the DIUx initiative in May, an overhaul meant to build stronger connections with private-sector entrepreneurs and tech experts.

There’s no shortage of money available for military research programs — Carter’s latest budget proposal would spend $72 billion on R&D next year — but the slow pace of government contracting makes it difficult to capture the latest private-sector innovations, officials said.

DIUx aims to bridge that gap by connecting entrepreneurs with military officials who might buy a startup’s technology, and writing checks more quickly, in some cases within a month of getting a formal proposal.

Shield AI, which has operations in San Diego and Cambridge, is among several companies finalizing contracts with the Defense Department as part of the DIUx program. Shield AI is developing small, autonomous drone aircraft intended to help American combat troops collect intelligence in tight quarters, such as inside buildings or tunnel systems.

Brandon Tseng, the company’s cofounder and a former Navy SEAL, said the faster funding process could help get advanced technologies into the hands of fighters more quickly.

“What DIUx has been able to do is connect us to the user base: special operations forces,’’ said Tseng, currently a Harvard Business School student. “Traditional acquisition processes can’t go fast enough.’’

Speeding up military contracting could also help entrepreneurs secure investment from private financiers, who want to quickly see proof that customers are interested in a startup’s product, said Helen Greiner, the chief executive of drone manufacturer CyPhy Works.

“I think there’s a lot of innovation that doesn’t get captured because it withers, and investors lose interest,’’ Greiner said.

But Dean Kamen, a noted inventor and president of Deka Research and Development Corp., said Carter may find it hard to get an innovative new program like DIUx to take hold in a huge bureaucracy like the US military.

“I think in principal, he’s getting it exactly right,’’ Kamen said Tuesday. “The question is, whether this little bug will take hold, or be rejected by the host.’’

On Tuesday, Carter acknowledged the Boston area’s long history of military R&D projects, which includes the pivotal role researchers at the MIT Radiation Lab played in developing modern radar systems during World War II.

More recently, Boston-area companies have worked with the military to push the boundaries of robotics, such as two- and four-legged robots from Boston Dynamics that try to mimic human and animal gaits.

Carter specifically highlighted the region’s strength in biotech, centered in Kendall Square where the DIUx office is located, as an area of rich possibility for military R&D. Biotech advancements could be used not only to help heal injured troops, but also to counteract biological weapons or even create new kinds of materials, Carter said.

“We’re now able to engineer organisms to fabricate things that might be useful in aerospace, might be useful in undersea warfare,’’ he said. “There are a whole lot of things that the field of biology offers for the future.’’

Carter also announced new members of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, a group headed by Alphabet Inc. chairman Eric Schmidt. New advisors from the Boston area include Broad Institute president Eric Lander and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein.

Curt Woodward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.