GCHQ Accelerator Program Manager Sarah Martin reveals how and why the British intelligence agency partnered with global innovation hub Wayra to accelerate startups in Manchester.
What does a British intelligence agency look for in startups? Is it interested in just the technology or are there broader themes to explore? Why partner with a private accelerator like Wayra to achieve its goals?
“I think everybody has a preconception of what it’s like to work with any government agency”
Governments around the world are turning to the private sector for innovation. It is no secret that the biggest names in tech have worked with government organizations for decades, but there is now a growing trend for intelligence agencies and defense departments to partner with private startups, incubators, and accelerators.
In the UK, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) just completed a three-month “GCHQ Engineering Accelerator Manchester” program in collaboration with Wayra UK.
Why the GCHQ Tapped Wayra for its Manchester Accelerator
“I find GCHQ very innovative, very open-minded, very diverse, and really a great bunch of people to work with”
The Sociable spoke with the GCHQ accelerator Program Manager Sarah Martin on what it is like to partner with an intelligence agency, and along the way, we learn a few surprises as to what the GCHQ was actually looking for in the program, and they may not be what you think.
For starters, the GCHQ wasn’t just interested in the technology the startups were working with but also their thematic approaches to innovation and problem solving, but before that, what was the nature of GCHQ/Wayra partnership?
Having experience working with accelerators and incubators in the past, Martin revealed, “The important detail to remember is that the programs are GCHQ’s and that Wayra runs these programs in partnership, so it’s Wayra and GCHQ.”
“They [GCHQ] come to Wayra and say what they’d like to achieve and say ‘please help us do this,’ and they follow Wayra’s methodology in terms of doing that, so from that perspective it’s quite straight-forward and Wayra-esque.”
“I’m not a special person; I’m just a normal person that does special things”
“From a GCHQ perspective, one of their security guys once said to me, ‘I’m not a special person; I’m just a normal person that does special things.’ And I thought that was a really nice way of explaining that what they do is really important, but they are just normal, average people, and there has to be some sensitivity around what it is they do and where, but to be honest, in general it just felt like I was working with normal people in a normal organization.”
“What I would say is that I was really blown away. I think everybody has a preconception of what it’s like to work with any government agency, whether it be GCHQ or something more mundane, but I have to say that from a public sector/government agency-type perspective, I find them so very normal,” she chuckles, adding, “I find them very innovative, very open-minded, very diverse, and really a great bunch of people to work with.”
A Secret Location with Open Objectives
“The nature and the objectives of the program was to be quite open”
One of the nuances of the GCHQ engineering accelerator in Manchester was that the location of the program was undisclosed to the public.
Martin commented that, “The location that we held the accelerator in was undisclosed, and that was one of those things obviously where measures were taken to keep some of that protection and safety and security in place, but beyond that our startups and myself and others just felt that we were in a normal accelerator. You just have to be consious of who it is you’re working with, but I don’t think there was anything more sensitive beyond that.”
For Martin, there were no NDAs signed, and there weren’t any restrictions on whom she could speak with outside of the accelerator while the program was going on, but she remarked, “The program I was running for GCHQ was quite open. The nature and the objectives of the program was to be quite open.”
GCHQ, Wayra Mission to Engage with Local Ecosystem
So, what were the objectives of the GCHQ accelerator in Manchester? Why did the British intelligence agency partner with Wayra, and what did they expect to get out of it?
“I’ll tell you what the objectives are. It’s an engineering accelerator, so GCHQ were really interested in tapping into technologies that maybe they don’t play with a lot. They were interested in genuinely giving back to the startup ecosystem in Manchester. It all roots back to Manchester, and it’s a really important message, and I think it’s a nice message as well.
“We had about a hundred applications, and GCHQ were passionate about having Manchester-based companies”
“It’s no secret that GCHQ have various locations — most of them undisclosed — and not really in city-centered locations as you can imagine, and that’s something they’re very open about. They made the decision that in terms of accessing more diverse talent pools of people, but while continuing to add to the excellent people that they work with, and that they needed to be more embracing of some of these metropolitan-type areas.
“Publicly, they made an announcement that they were moving some functions to the City of Manchester, and part of the rationale for part of the accelerator was to get involved in the local ecosystem and give something back and see where they could fit and where they could engage with the citizens of Manchester.”
The GCHQ accelerator in Manchester received some 100 startup applications and only four were chosen.
“We had about a hundred applications, and GCHQ were passionate about having Manchester-based companies, so we got a lot of interest not just from across the country but internationally as well, and GCHQ very much wanted to work with the Manchester ecosystem.
“One of the main takeaways was ‘What is Manchester?’ ‘What does Manchester look like?’ Manchester is an incredibly diverse tech epicenter of the UK outside of London, and GCHQ wanted to establish ‘what does that actually mean to us?’ and ‘how can we tap in to that?'”
The Startup Selection Process
The decision to select four startups out of a hundred was a joint one between the GCHQ and Wayra.
“Although the technology was important, there was a lot of ‘thematic’ fit criteria”
“The methodology from a Wayra perspective is that it [the startup] has to have an O2, Telefonica fit. Not only is that the objective from our perspective […] but in terms of value the startups can drive and in terms of value for the partners like GCHQ that gives to startups — it’s about being able to work with an industry and a globally-leading organization like Telefonica. So, it has to work with Telefonica for the partnerships and the startups to actually be able to get real value out of it.”
For the selection process experts from GCHQ, Telefonica, and others were part of a panel, and Martin explains, “In terms of fit, it’s not always a ‘technology fit,’ although Wayra’s model is a technology fit one from an industry perspective, but actually in this program, because of the way GCHQ wanted to run it, because it was really about engaging with an ecosystem […] Wayra wanted to use this program as an opportunity also to get more embedded in Northern tech ecosystem.”
“In terms of the fit,” Martin continues, “what was really interesting about this program was that although the technology was important, there was a lot of ‘thematic’ fit criteria.
“One of the startups that we worked with was really focused on diversity and diverse recruitment, and that’s something we are very passionate about at Wayra, but it’s also something GCHQ are very passionate about that fits into everything that they’re trying to do at the moment in terms of putting new locations in new regions in the UK. So, it wasn’t just a technology fit, but a lot of it was thematic as well.”
Questioning GCHQ Motives
“It’s natural to think that the ‘why’ has to be a technology fit, but as is quite often in this area, it was actually a thematic fit”
The four startups that were selected into the accelerator in Manchester worked on technological solutions surrounding, but not limited to:
- Creating a behavior canvas that covers the entirety of the UK (PlaceDashboard)
- Using psychometric culture-fit while taking unconscious bias out of matching great candidates to suitable roles (Jobseekrs)
- Controlling all your home automation gadgets in a 3D model of your home (Locometric)
- Using GPS to connect you to somebody else nearby (Y?NOT)
Obviously, the technology alone raises questions about the motives of GCHQ in wanting to accelerate startups working on these particular technologies.
However, Martin explains, “Absolutely, there is a sort of question mark to have in terms of the ‘why,’ and it’s natural to think that the ‘why’ has to be a technology fit, but as is quite often in this area, it was actually a thematic fit.
“For Jobseekrs, it wasn’t necessarily the technology that Jobseekrs were using that was of interest to GCHQ; it was the fact that they were tackling this issue of diverse recruitment in a new and fascinating way, and that was something GCHQ wanted to explore and to learn ‘how is it you are approaching this and why?’ but it wasn’t necessarily something about the algorithms they’re using behind the scenes. In fact it’s probably the reverse.”
In other words, instead of focusing on just the tech itself, GCHQ was looking towards thematic insights and how to explore other avenues of innovation, among other objectives.
According to Martin, the GCHQ “wanted to see what others do. Do startups work in agile ways that we hadn’t thought of?”
Martin found it funny that one of the great takeaways for GCHQ from the accelerator program was how startups had to pitch their ideas in just 30 seconds.
If every business and employee in the organization were put to the same standards as the startups in the accelerator were with regards to presenting an entire business proposal in a 30-second pitch, “We’d be a hugely efficient organization!” Martin exclaims.
The Value of Public and Private Collaborations
“There’s a lot of value that can be gained between the collaboration of public and private sectors”
Governments working with the private sector is a growing trend around the world.
Just last month the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US announced it was launching an accelerator which would accelerate private companies, so that they would sell their products, services, or research right back to the government.
And earlier this year the US Department of Defense CIO Dana Deasy said to lawmakers, “One of the things we struggle with at the DoD and government is what I call a startup mentality. I do believe there will need changes, and I believe it’s going to be how do we move to a more startup mentality when looking at technologies like AI.”
As for the GCHQ program manager, “There’s a lot of value that can be gained between the collaboration of public and private sectors,” Martin says, adding, “why should the public sector or the government organizations operate any differently from a private sector organization?”
Additionally, she notes, “There is a whole machine that is Wayra in terms of the partnerships we create, the accelerators that we run, etc, but there’s a whole other side as well in terms of what we do, and GCHQ really bought into that and really partcipated with us in that. And that includes STEM activities, and Tech for Good.
“As a society we really have to think about the implications of our utilizations of these technologies”
“Just this week I hosted an event with our partner Ascension Ventures in Oldham and that was called Fair by Design, and that’s this concept that it shouldn’t cost you more money to be poor — that the poor is already poor — and that we can use technology in a very responsible way to combat that, and that’s something that I’ve been really privileged to be a part of, and Wayra supported that mission so so strongly, and GCHQ really loved that, and together we did lots of those types of activities as well as the mainstream part of how we accelerate startups.
“I think technology is the future. Look at where we are now, but as a society we really have to think about the implications of our utilizations of these technologies, and I think that’s something that we as Wayra put a lot of thought into, and it’s something that I’m very passionate about on a personal level. I do a lot of charity work; I do a lot of STEM work, and GCHQ really goes above and beyond to get involved in those things,” Martin concludes.