August 2016

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“The world is going to go to self-driving and autonomous,” says Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalancik, noting that if Uber didn’t lead that trend “the future passes us by basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.” As if glancing into the rear view mirror to make sure no one was gaining on it, Uber promptly introduced the first autonomous cars into its Pittsburgh fleet and purchased a self-driving truck start-up.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. announced its intention to produce autonomous cars without pedals and steering wheels by 2021.

Collectively, these statements and actions led me to ask – why is there an implicit assumption that the technological change of autonomy is inevitable? And, if its adoption is inevitable, shouldn’t we also be addressing the inevitable challenges that will result from its widespread adoption?

Technology blinds us into having a belief in its inevitability — we get so caught up in the coolness of it all. Or, perhaps the progress is a reflection of a freely moving, creative society.

In our excitement about technological advances, we often leave ourselves short on thinking through its implications.

The most obvious question raised by widespread adoption of autonomous technologies is the effect on employment. At the very same time it’s running compelling national TV ads to attract human drivers, Uber is planning those drivers’ technological replacement. A trucking company that uses the autonomous technology just acquired by Uber may become more efficient, but it will also displace truck drivers, one of the largest remaining high-paying jobs available without a technical education.

What role will humans play in autonomous transportation businesses? Will they become minimum wage-earning night watchmen, sitting in a truck cab while the truck itself drives 20 hours a day? Will there still be a need for a “driver” in an autonomous taxi to make sure that they are kept clean and undamaged?

Another question relates to how we will live in harmony with autonomous transportation technologies. Consider the underlying assumption that autonomous cars will be safer and cut down on traffic. Yes, autonomous cars will likely be able to travel more closely together, thereby cutting down on the stop-and-start driving that creates a traffic jams. And the safety expectation is based on the simple reality that humans are often really bad drivers. Those assumptions make technical sense.

However, how will autonomous cars and human drivers co-exist on our highways? Will we outlaw cars driven by humans? Set up special lanes for autonomous cars? Or, just accept the inevitable free-for-all that will undoubtedly occur? The next time someone cuts you off on the Capital Beltway while texting and drinking coffee, consider how computer software might address this moment.

Finally, consider the issue of legal liability for…

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More and more people agree: cybersecurity is in our region’s DNA and can continue to be a boom for greater Washington.

But venture capital is pivotal in providing the accelerant for rapid growth of technology companies, and it I fear that the lack of sufficient risk capital is strangling some promising startups.

Overall, the greater Washington region is the eighth-largest venture capital market in the country. For 2015, approximately $1.4 billion of venture capital was invested here.

This capital was provided by 351 investment firms and of those, 252 were from outside of our region — with the remaining 45 indigenous to our market, according to Pitchbook, a well-respected source of market data.

Turning more narrowly to software, approximately $700 million in venture capital was invested in 2015. The most active software investors were

a blend of angel groups (NextGen Angels, Blu Ventures and Baltimore Angels), government funders (Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology and Maryland Technology Development Corp), and institutional venture investors (Grotech and New Enterprise Associates). Not surprisingly, deal frequency tended to highlight angel groups, due to their role as often providing seed capital to new businesses.

The two most active early-stage investors in software are very different in their funding and approach. Virginia’s CIT is a state-funded activity that makes seed investments, operates an accelerator program — Mach37 — and has a technology commercialization fund to jump start new companies. Blu Ventures is a group of highly experienced entrepreneurs using their own money to invest and play a hands-on role with companies where their operational expertise will be meaningful.

Narrowing the focus to cybersecurity start-up funding reveals some interesting data.

In our region approximately $430 million in cybersecurity software venture capital deals took place in 2015 — roughly a third of all venture capital funding.

Although the absolute number of cybersecurity venture investing appears to be a large percentage of overall software investing, one deal (Tenable Network Security) was $250 million of that amount. The remaining $170 million was spread through 24 deals. Pin those deals on a map of our region, and the clusters become obvious: substantially all of the transactions were among companies located in Northern Virginia, Baltimore and Howard County.

Apparently, venture capital firms are making…

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — A recent White House memorandum to heads of federal departments and agencies outlining a policy toward “ensuring Government-wide reuse rights for custom code that is developed using Federal funds” could be problematic for vendors that customize software for individual federal agencies, says entrepreneurship lecturer Jonathan Aberman at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and founder of TandemNSI, a firm whose mission is to “connect agile innovators to government agencies.

The new Federal Source Code, also dubbed the “People’s Code,” also calls for at least 20 percent of these software projects to be accessible to the public without any additional payment to the developer through the “open sourcing” of their work. Aberman expresses caution in reviewing these changes. “Taken together, these policy steps could be a problem for software entrepreneurs,” he says. “As is often the case with announcements like these, the devil is in the details.”

A key issue is the juxtaposition of “government rights” and open sourcing of software products. “A government agency often acquires the right to use a software product specially written for it — and unless the developer specially limits this in their contract with the government, the government will have the right to share it throughout the government without further payment. That is not a new thing,” Aberman says. “You see this most often in research and development or prototyping. And, the government quite literally has rights to thousands of software projects that are completed and not used, or are only used by the agency to which they are delivered. Trying to figure out how to cause them to have more utility is a great idea for taxpayers.”

But the challenge, Aberman says, is whether the new government policy would…

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As children imagining our life as adults, we assume we’ll have a better understanding of life’s big questions. Our evolution from childhood to adulthood — dependence to autonomy — is defined by our belief that we will learn to better navigate the world around us.

We expected we would be in control of our destinies, yet each day, we are reminded that this expectation was (and is) wildly unrealistic.

Which brings me to today’s big questions and how they defy easy understanding.

Much has been written in this election cycle about ignorance and displeasure. There are many reasons offered for why people are angry, why they shout: “Our country is becoming unhinged.”

Let’s all take a deep breath.

It seems to me that our national mood is actually being framed by our childhood expectations. We want the world to make sense to us — we expect it to.

Nothing is more disappointing than not receiving what we believe we were entitled. For children, that disappointment spawns temper tantrums. When kids react with an emotional outburst, we send them to the corner for “time outs.” What should we do for ourselves?

Unquestionably, life in our country has become more complicated. Technology and change are a double-edged sword. They are drivers for wealth creation and opportunity, reaching into all aspects of our society, yet at the same time, they bring about tremendous complex challenges.

A big issue in the current election is globalization. Some say it is better for our citizens than the alternative of economic isolation. Statistics show worldwide wealth has increased over the last 50 years. But, has it been…

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Since the launch of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has based his qualifications on his experience as a businessperson — that his financial acumen would make him a good president. I see this as an incredible opportunity for voters to finally get a clear picture of a candidate’s true colors — if they are willing to look for the truth.

My father was an entrepreneur. He often reminded me “we all leave footprints” in business; how we act and what we do is captured in personal memories of those with whom we worked.

Building a business is a multiple-step endeavor: Find a market, hire people, build a product, sell that product and hopefully have a lifelong relationship with a customer. Each step of the way, actual human beings are on the other side of the transaction, with their own needs. How you get a customer to agree with you, and find a common ground, is a core skill of successful business people.

My father’s point was a simple one. Unlike politics, where a candidate can often spin the past, or reinvent him or herself through great public relations, those varied steps in growing an enterprise are harder to whitewash — there are just too many of them.

To truly understand the character of a business person, let’s take advantage of the proof out there for all to see. Not simply in the achievement of the success, but in how they climbed to that point.

Business people come in all shapes and sizes, with a multitude of personal ways to negotiate and gather resources. Some look at the world as a zero sum game where every transaction has a winner and a loser while others believe that both sides in a negotiation can benefit equally. Some operate as if a negotiation is never over, and deals can be reopened after they have closed. Another tactic is to lie during negotiations. Then again, I have seen smart people knowingly lose out on opportunities because they told the truth.

For years, I have worked with psychologists who specialize in leadership development and have coached hard-working people on how to grow successful businesses. One recurring lesson I have seen imparted is that under stress, people return to their core behavior, their own very personal winning strategy if you will — personality traits they rely on to get what they want.

We learn our personal winning strategies when we are very young. Whether it’s to be a bully, to collaborate, to be analytical or to cajole, we began applying those skills in our nursery school sandbox.

So because business is often a highly stressful place where we end up showing our true nature and are most authentic when engaged in commerce, we are fortunate as the voting public to have a candidate this time around whose record we can examine in ways beyond the rudimentary count of how many buildings or widgets carry the company name. We can ask tough questions to those who transacted with Trump, and perhaps saw his true, instinctive nature. His candidacy provides us with a transparency…

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This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. Last week in Boston, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced significant improvements and expansion of the Pentagon’s capability to work with agile innovators. These two events are related in very important ways.

The Apollo program’s moon landings remain among the most significant accomplishments of “big science,” the term used to describe a program of developing and achieving innovations using large centralized teams. Generally, big science addresses challenges that are believed to not be suitable for solution by small autonomous groups.

During World War II, big science became a tactic for creating advanced technologies, the most emblematic being the Manhattan Project — the research and development effort behind the first nuclear weapons. After the war, big science continued to be the primary model for discovering new innovations. A vast network of university and federal labs was created to continue to advance technology, and the model was adopted by private companies such as AT&T in its Bell Labs.

Much of the development and application of big science was promoted and funded by the Department of Defense. As Secretary Carter stated last week, the Defense Department had a long history of working to develop important new technologies such as the jet engine, satellite communications, Internet, and GPS. He noted that this “cooperation among industry, the academy and government helped make our military what it is today: the finest fighting force the world has ever known.”

Over the last 20 years, the big science model has been challenged by the emergence of innovation from small and agile teams. It has been facilitated by the commoditization of software — lowering the costs of creating software  to effectively zero — as well as the…

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