In-Q-Tel isn’t your typical venture capital firm.
True, like the stalwarts of Sand Hill Road, they invest in tech companies. But unlike other VCs, they maintain direct ties to the CIA, NSA, and a host of other American intelligence agencies. In-Q-Tel was formed specifically to funnel technology from Silicon Valley to American intelligence agencies. The venture capital fund, which is public about its CIA ties, invests in companies that are able to create products specifically for the spy and government world. Tasked with “bridg(ing) the gap between the technology needs of the U.S. Intelligence Community and emerging commercial innovation,” they pour money into outside companies to develop specialized products for intelligence agencies. One of their latest investments? A mobile collaboration tool for police officers, fire departments, and EMTs called BlueLine Grid.
BlueLine Grid (which Fast Company’s Peter Wade covered back in 2013) is designed as a collaborative platform for government employees in different agencies to work together. Jack Weiss, the company’s president and cofounder, describes it as a team communication tool that allows information to be shared easily. Individual agencies, such as police departments, pay a monthly subscription fee to use the platform, and users then access the platform through smartphone apps or a web-based dashboard. One of the product’s selling points is a social graph of America’s public sector workforce developed by BlueLine. With the click of a button, the company hopes, police officers or EMTs can immediately connect with the contact they are trying to seek across jurisdictions.
Users can then identify their geographic locations on maps, collaborate with teams in real time (almost like a Slack for cops), and communicate with other agents in the geographic vicinity. Supervisors can also send push notifications and broadcasts to entire teams over the app, which is offered to police departments as a feature that saves time and money.
According to Weiss, more than 20% of American law enforcement departments currently use the platform. Much of this is due to the pedigree of the site’s founders. BlueLine Grid the company was formerly known as Bratton Technologies, and was cofounded by Weiss, entrepreneur David Riker, and New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. Bratton, who is no longer involved in the company, founded the firm while working for white-collar crime investigation firm Kroll with Riker and Weiss.
Weiss, a former federal prosecutor-turned-Los Angeles city councilman, said the company’s early efforts centered around building their social graph, a process that included scraping over 11 million names of government employees to build sales leads and verify identities.
In public appearances (such as the video above), BlueLine Grid emphasizes the verification aspect of their product. Within a closed, secure app, BlueLine says, users can share information on local goings-on between agencies on the go. Weiss said that police departments are largely “products of the radio,” and that many law enforcement agencies and fire departments are less tech savvy than the general public might expect. One example he gave is the use of paper maps on a routine basis by the Los Angeles Fire Department, with firefighters using GPS apps such as Google Maps or Waze on their phones just like a normal commuter.
BlueLine isn’t the first company to operate in this space. Web-based police portals such as PoliceOne have been around for years, and many big-city police departments have unofficial (and frequently profane, racist, sexist, and very NSFW) bulletin boards like Thee Rant in New York. But BlueLine are among the first to use a monthly subscription fee-based model, and to aim their product directly at the many, many law enforcement personnel in America who use smartphones or iPads on the job.
They are also working in an industry that’s in the middle of an ongoing migration to cloud computing. In-Q-Tel has shown a keen interest in cloud computing, building partnerships with Amazon Web Services, among others. Meanwhile, police departments are chomping at the bit to adopt cloud computing thanks to the cost savings they offer to their overstretched budgets. The widespread adoption of body cameras by many police departments, and the constant stream of footage they will generate, is also expected to accelerate this trend.
In the meantime, BlueGrid is hoping the other 80% of American law enforcement agencies will become subscribers.