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When the U.S. Army tested new wireless technology this spring at Fort Monmouth, NJ, it was also testing a new way to foster commercial development of military technologies. The ultrasecure cell phones used in the test were developed by Secureant-one tenant in a new army-funded incubator established specifically to nurture companies that could deliver information technologies for the battlefield of the future.

The Applied Communications and Information Networking project set up shop last fall. Each of the four firms sharing the project’s Camden, NJ, facility is working on technology for “networked warfighting”-information sharing during the chaos of battle. The project’s creators-the Army Communications and Electronics Command in Fort Monmouth, Sarnoff of Princeton, NJ, and Drexel University-hope that it will help the military out of an innovation dead end created by 50 years of reliance on big defense contractors. The U.S. Department of Defense is finding that the center of innovation in information technology has shifted dramatically, with small, private companies often setting the pace.

Some 900 incubators are operating in the U.S., but the Camden facility is the first devoted to defense technologies. The deal is simple: companies get office space and entrepreneurial advice, while the military gets a first look at whatever technology emerges. “This is an experiment,” says entrepreneur-in-residence Lou Bucelli, who provides mentorship to the incubator’s tenants. But for those tenants, it’s not so much an experiment as a shot of adrenaline. Secureant, for example, had been working for three years on improving the security and range of wireless transmissions. Now the army is interested in using the company’s encryption and error reduction methods to deploy soldiers farther from command posts without losing radio contact. The same technology could mean fewer civilian cell phone towers.

Secureant’s cohabitants in the incubator are each targeting different defense establishment needs. InterraTech, for instance, tailors e-commerce systems to help small companies do business with the military; its software accounts for the complexities of military contracting.

The success of these enterprises is far from assured, given that the majority of startups die whether or not they started life in incubators. Still, Bucelli argues that the army project offers its startups a safer path to market. With a near-term customer in the U.S. military, as well as continued support while they adapt their products for the commercial marketplace, the companies may indeed get their technologies out of the incubator and onto the battlefield.

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