The Obama administration and the Pentagon are giving the wearables industry a big push. On Friday, defense secretary Ash Carter will announce that the Department of Defense is investing $75 million in a “flexible hybrid electronics” innovation center in Silicon Valley; in addition to the Pentagon’s contribution, the new institute will receive more than $90 million in funding from academia, corporate interests, and local governments for a total of about $171 million.
More than 160 companies and academic institutions–including the likes of Apple, Boeing, General Motors, and Hewlett Packard–will work together as part of the new hub, dubbed the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics. The industry consortium FlexTech Alliance will oversee the institute.
Why are the Pentagon and White House funding an R&D center in Silicon Valley? The answer lies, in part, with common interests between the military and tech industry. This is only the latest of nine big-budget R&D centers established by the White House, which are focusing on 3-D printing, lightweight metals, non-silicon semiconductors, and other tech-centric areas.
In July, the Obama administration announced plans to usurp China’s title and build the world’s fastest supercomputer by 2025. Obama has been hiring tech talent away from Silicon Valley for some time, as Fast Company examined in a cover story earlier this summer:
Todd Park, the former chief technology officer of the United States, and Mikey Dickerson, who led a team of 60 engineers at Google and supervised the crew that fixed the Healthcare.gov website last year… have been steadily recruiting an elite digital corps—a startup team, essentially, built mainly from the ranks of top private-sector companies—and embedding them within the U.S. government. Their purpose is to remake the digital systems by which government operates, to implement the kind of efficiency and agility and effectiveness that define Silicon Valley’s biggest successes, across everything from the IRS to Immigration Services.
“We’ve got about 140 people in the network right now,” Park says of the digital team. “The goal is to get it to about 500 by the end of 2016.” Whether Park and Dickerson can find enough superstar techies to take a flyer on this risky project is just one of many concerns. There are bigger questions, too, such as whether a small number of technologists can actually bring about vast changes within the most massive, powerful, bureaucratic regime on earth.