In-Q-Tel Opens Boston Office, Plans to In-q-bate New Technology for the Intelligence Community

12/4/07Follow @wroush

If you’re a budding Boston entrepreneur working on a technology such as deeper data mining, longer-lasting batteries, or faster microfluidic DNA screening, you might get a surprise phone call one day soon from the U.S. intelligence community—or at least, from its strategic investing arm. That’s because In-Q-Tel, an Arlington, VA-based private, non-profit group that funds early-stage technology ventures on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence organizations, has come to town. It’s just turned on the lights at its new Waltham office, and it’s on the lookout for Boston-area startups with technologies that could help the nation’s spies and intelligence analysts do their jobs better.

It’s not that Boston has eluded the intelligence agencies in the past—the region is already home to 13 out of the 120 companies In-Q-Tel has funded since its creation in 1999, including Basis Technology, BBN Technologies, Ember, Endeca, Metacarta, Polychromix, Sionex, Spotfire, and Traction Software. But Ben Levitan, a new partner brought on by In-Q-Tel this April to help open the Boston outpost, says “that percentage is about to go up a lot.”

Levitan agreed to meet me for coffee in a snowy Harvard Square yesterday afternoon. With him was Donald Tighe, In-Q-Tel’s vice president of external affairs, who was visiting from Virginia. I’d first met Levitan in an unusual setting—a dinner discussion about virtual items and virtual economies hosted back in October by David Beisel of Cambridge venture firm Venrock—and he’d hinted to me then that In-Q-Tel would have some news in the next few weeks. Over cappuccinos at Legal Sea Foods, Levitan and Tighe told me that the organization has been cultivating local contacts behind the scenes for some time, and that they’re now finally ready to start spreading the word more widely about In-Q-Tel’s presence here.

In-Q-Tel’s mission is to scout for young companies where engineers are working on technologies intelligence agencies might want, but need help getting these technologies off the ground and adapting them for the government’s specific requirements. The organization provides seed money of up to $3 million, as well as a crash course in the structure and requirements of organizations like the CIA, the NSA, or the National Reconnaissance Office. Most often, In-Q-Tel doesn’t even ask for an equity stake in return. “We’re not looking for ‘deals.’ We’re looking for solutions to problems,” says Levitan.

Those problems fall into five specific areas: application software and analytics; bio- and nano-technology … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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