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Sticking this here but if Bob believes it's a better fit elsewhere, feel free to move it.

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On Dec. 3, top Pentagon leaders, military brass and defense CEOs flocked to California for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum. The Davos-style event, which brings the power brokers of the defense world out to California, has increasingly become a venue for meetings with the young Silicon Valley-based tech founders and venture capitalists eager to break into government markets.

This year, there was an air of foreboding served alongside the free drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

“Time is running out with Silicon Valley,” said Katherine Boyle, a partner with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, in a series of tweets published the day before the event. “We have, at most, two years before founders walk away and private capital dries up. And many, many startups will go out of business waiting for DOD to award real production contracts.”

To many of the executives from defense-oriented tech startups who attended the forum and spoke to Breaking Defense, Boyle’s tweets rang true, a Cassandra-like warning to the Pentagon establishment about what it could lose.

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According to defense leaders who spoke throughout the forum, there is awareness that a put-up-or-shut-up moment is approaching, and in typical Pentagon fashion, there are a million ideas for how best to move forward — without clarity that any of them will actually change anything. 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown perhaps put it most directly on his panel, when he said the department needs to take action quickly. 

“If we don’t do that, then I really believe all that venture capital is just gonna walk,” he said. “They’re going to find someplace else to go.”

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“Let’s face it: For far too long, it’s been far too hard for innovators and entrepreneurs to work with the department,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a speech at the forum. “And the barriers to entry into this effort to work with us in national security are often too steep, far too steep.”

In particular, Austin said, the department still struggles in bridging the “valley of death,” an enduring defense neologism that describes the gap between the research and development phase and a program of record. Between those two stages lies the aforementioned valley, where officials either find the funding to usher a project into production, or bureaucracy kicks in and it dies on the vine.

“It’s bad enough that some companies get stuck in the valley of death,” Austin said. “But some brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators don’t even want to try to cross it and work with us. So our department has to do better.”

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The sentiment that the Department of Defense needs to shape up its buying practices and work more closely and transparently with Silicon Valley was echoed by other defense leaders during the forum.

“The US government has been a lousy partner, quite frankly. We don’t protect intellectual property. We get companies in and we waste their time,” California Rep. Ken Calvert, the top Republican on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said during a forum session. “Then we’re wondering why we’re not getting the technologies we want.”

Brown acknowledged that the best thing the service could do to help start ups overcome the valley of death is to narrow down the technologies it needs and then buy them.

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