Feds to Back Wearable Tech Startups With New Accelerator Program

The latest entrant into the startup accelerator and wearable-technologies games? It’s the Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS announced Tuesday that it will launch its two accelerator programs in a pilot program. The Emerge accelerators will work with startups to create wearable technology that could be used by first responders such as firefighters, police, and paramedics. They will be working with the Dallas-based Tech Wildcatters and TechNexus, which is located in Chicago.

The department’s Center for Innovation, which is located at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, will oversee the program. The academy also helped develop the idea.

Emerge is seeking tech that will help what the DHS labels “the responder of the future” in their mission, which in this case is responding to emergencies and saving lives. Wearable technology is one of the most promising areas, the government said in a release, noting projections it could be a trillion-dollar industry. Applications that could cross over into the commercial and consumer sectors include body-worn electronics, advanced sensors, and integrated voice and data communications embedded in a responder’s gear, the release said.

Despite the ties to the government, the program will be run like a typical accelerator, with the goal being to nurture startups working on technology that could succeed in the commercial marketplace, Tech Wildcatters CEO Gabriella Draney Zielke said. That means it will vet the entrepreneurs and startups and select six companies to participate. Over 12 weeks, it will connect them to mentors, assist work on product development, and help them court investors with a Demo Day. The companies will get $25,000 in seed funding with the potential for follow on investment, and in exchange, Tech Wildcatters will take a eight percent stake in the companies.

Like other accelerators that work with corporate partners, Emerge will connect entrepreneurs with experts, in this case, both first responders and officials from agencies at various levels of government and with entrepreneurs and engineers with experience in wearable technology, Draney Zielke said. Tech Wildcatters will work with San Francisco-based Wearable World to find mentors in the wearable device industry and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, which trains and develops products for first responders.

Balancing that many players could be complicated, especially when the differing cultures and expectations of startups and one of the federal government’s largest departments meet. The DHS appears to recognize this and called Emerge its latest attempt “to get cutting-edge technology into the field faster and at much lower cost to the government than trying to develop these technologies on [its] own.”

The DHS Center for Innovation will pay close attention and can help the startups identify both problems to solve and promising technology, but it will leave the management of the program up to non-governmental organizations, Draney Zielke said.

“They understand we’re making the ultimate decisions, but they do want to be there every step of the way, learning about the startups, figuring out which ones will go into the program, and then work with them on a regular basis,” Draney Zielke said.

DHS spokesman John Verrico said “the accelerator business is new territory for government.” That’s why the department worked with the Herndon, VA-based Center for Innovative Technology to design the program and select the accelerator partners.

Draney Zielke considers it a good sign that the government and CIT were surprisingly fast to make the Emerge project come together. “It was fascinating how quickly this process moved, which shows to me they’re serious about it and serious about the need to move quickly,” Draney Zielke said.

As of now, Emerge is a pilot program with funding for one year. That was a bit of a sticking point—Tech Wildcatters wanted a longer commitment—but Draney Zielke said ideas for potential spinouts have been mentioned if the first Emerge class is successful.

“Wearables is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Tech Wildcatters and TechNexus are accepting applications, and the accelerators are expected to begin in June and end with Demo Days in September. They and the DHS also will be on a panel Friday afternoon at South by Southwest to explain the project.

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