Homeland investment

As an organization consumed by the collection and analysis of information, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is keenly interested in IT on the cutting edge. So in 1999 the agency got into the high-tech venture capital business by launching In-Q-Tel Inc., an independent, private and nonprofit organization charged with identifying and investing in technologies “that serve U.S. national security interests.”

Although its mission sounds sweepingly vague, In-Q-Tel, with offices in Arlington, Va., and Menlo Park, Calif., focuses its attention on technologies that can be used in the private sector as well as in government and law enforcement. “We’re looking for solutions for enterprise problems — technologies that help large organizations work better whether they are Fortune 500 companies or the government,” says Stephanie Stern, a senior associate in In-Q-Tel’s marketing and communications department. The organization’s particular areas of focus include distributed data collection, geospatial information services, knowledge management, search and discovery, as well as security and privacy.

To select appropriate technologies and companies, In-Q-Tel’s pair of strategic business teams relies on an ever-changing blueprint that defines the CIA’s most pressing technology needs. To meet them, In-Q-Tel does not limit its financial involvement to startups; the organization has also made equity investments or funded product development at established companies. And In-Q-Tel’s overall investments in any given company certainly aren’t high by the venture industry’s recently achieved lofty standards. Thus far, In-Q-Tel’s individual investments have ranged from a modest US$500,000 to $3 million. Unlike a typical venture company, however, In-Q-Tel does not measure its success in terms of return on investment. Instead, it gauges it according to how effectively the CIA uses the funded technologies. “Our driving metric is the return on technology,” says Gayle Von Eckartsberg, an In-Q-Tel spokeswoman.

Taken as a whole, the In-Q-Tel investment list creates a mesh of technology intended to collect, secure, analyze and distribute data — exactly the kinds of activities a government information agency would appreciate. Systems Research & Development (SRD), a 20-year-old provider of software applications originally developed for the gaming industry, is a prime example. John Slitz, SRD’s CEO, says his company’s flagship technology is “nonobvious relationship awareness,” a software package called NORA that lets organizations identify correlations hidden inside huge amounts of unstructured data — in real-time.

In the casino business, for example, a cheat may use several aliases. When checking in at a hotel, SRD’s software can instantaneously link one alias with a list of others that the cheat has used in the past, quickly identifying a connection among the various names. Apply the same technology to homeland security and exchange the term cheat with terrorist, and it’s easy to understand the CIA’s interest in SRD.

The same synergy is apparent in another In-Q-Tel-funded company. Vienna, Va.-based MetaCarta offers knowledge management software with a geographic twist. Enter a person’s name in a search field, and MetaCarta’s software filters large volumes of unstructured text documents for geographic references. It then visually charts the results on a map. A quick search of the Internet using my name, for example, revealed that I wrote five stories connected to Texas in one way or another. A similar search using the name of a suspected terrorist might prove significantly more valuable.

In-Q-Tel’s investments cover more than data analysis. After 9/11, the intelligence community was roundly criticized for its inability to share information among various agencies and departments. That criticism may help explain In-Q-Tel’s investment in Traction Software. Traction’s TeamPage product lets users easily edit, access and share data via an interactive website. Essentially, Traction is in the business of providing enterprise Web logging tools. Once data resides in TeamPage, users can archive and search the information “just like Google,” says Tim Simonson, Traction’s CEO.

During its relatively short life, In-Q-Tel has already reviewed the business plans of some 3,000 potential investment targets and has invested in more than 20 companies. With homeland security now a top priority, In-Q-Tel appears poised to have a very busy future.