NATO unveils tech accelerator footprint, with plans for over 60 sites

STUTTGART, Germany – NATO is set to establish a new trans-Atlantic initiative meant to speed up the development of critical technologies, with one Euro-centric headquarters stationed in London and more than 60 partner sites around its alliance.

Last summer at the 31st annual NATO Summit in Brussels, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced plans to establish the Defense Innovation Accelerator of the North Atlantic, or DIANA, based on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Nearly a year later, NATO’s foreign ministers are ready to approve a formal charter for DIANA and commit to providing an initial € 1 billion (US $ 1.1 billion) innovation fund. The ministers will approve DIANA’s charter during their April 6-7 meeting in Brussels, Stoltenberg said April 5 during a pre-ministerial press briefing.

The initiative comes with more than 60 innovation sites. That includes a headquarters in Europe and another in North America, about 10 “accelerator sites” that provide financing, mentorship and exposure to business opportunities to participating startups, and more than 50 dedicated test centers hosting labs and equipment.

“Altogether, the initial footprint will cover 20 NATO nations, representing a true trans-Atlantic endeavor, and we expect it to continue to expand in the future,” Stoltenberg said.

The technology accelerator will be a new NATO body, tasked with bringing innovative civilian and military organizations closer together to develop cutting-edge solutions in the realms of emerging and disruptive technologies, said David van Weel, NATO assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges.

The plan is for allies to agree upon a new strategic direction every two years, which will then dictate critical defense and security problems as well as the desired solutions.

“This provides strong signals of market demand and opportunity for innovators,” van Weel said at a Tuesday press briefing.

From there, startups, academic institutions and nontraditional industry members can participate in so-called challenge programs that work to solve real-world problems – such as operating in a GPS-denied environment – and submit proposals to participate in DIANA’s accelerator effort.

Member nations submitted proposals for more than 90 institutions to be part of the DIANA footprint; After evaluations, NATO pared it down to more than 10 accelerator sites and over 50 test centers, with many already in existence, van Weel said.

Among those selected sites are the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, which will focus on quantum technologies, and a new site in Turin, Italy, which will be dedicated to the space domain.

Imperial College London will host the European headquarters along with a DIANA accelerator, in a space currently housing the UK’s Defense and Security Accelerator, according to the British government. The UK’s program will be “twinned” with a new accelerator based in Tallinn, Estonia, to help share expertise, test cyber innovations and explore the viability of “virtual sites” to trial new tech such as autonomous vehicles.

“The UK and Estonia are two of the most innovative countries in NATO, and our hosting of DIANA will harness that innovation for the benefit of all allies tackling future military threats,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a news release.

While the centers on the European side have all been selected, the North American footprint will be announced at the NATO Summit in June in Madrid, Spain. The goal is to have DIANA reach its full operational capability by 2025, said van Weel.

Alongside the tech accelerator is a nascent venture capital fund, dubbed the NATO Innovation Fund. “Ultimately, reimagining NATO’s engagement with civilian innovators is only credible if we also provide the right funding mechanisms,” van Weel noted.

Twenty-one members worked together to establish the fund’s underlying framework – outlining the investment strategy, the pool of capital, and determining the fund’s structure and governance. They also provided initial financial support. The Innovation Fund will invest € 1 billion in “deep-tech startups” over 15 years. These are public funds that participating nations can allocate, either from their existing defense budgets or established innovation funds, a senior NATO official said Tuesday.

The participating nations in DIANA’s innovation fund currently include Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Other member nations may decide to contribute to the Innovation Fund at a later date, but they would have no say over its framework, the NATO official said.

A key aspect of DIANA will be to support NATO’s work in harnessing critical technology areas known as emerging and disruptive technologies, or EDT. The alliance recently identified propulsion and new materials as two new EDTs the deserve attention, joining artificial intelligence, autonomy, big-data processing, quantum-enabled technologies, biotechnology, hypersonic technology and space-related systems.

NATO has released public strategies for several of these EDTs – for space, AI and big-data processing. The alliance’s strategy on autonomy is expected to be released this year, and one on quantum-enabled technologies will come the following year, the official said.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News’ European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defense Media Awards’ best young defense journalist in 2020.

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