Most people think of large companies, like Google and Apple, as the primary technology innovators in the U.S. But there are plenty of small businesses, like Sentient Digital, Inc., leading the way and finding inventive methods of addressing technological challenges. So how do we compete and push innovation?
Many technology breakthroughs past and present originated from government-funded research and development. In addition to the work being done by the R&D departments of Silicon Valley giants, there are government-funded R&D opportunities reserved for smaller firms. This allows small businesses, which may naturally be more agile and entrepreneurial, to gain the resources necessary to produce cutting-edge technological research and development.
A few months ago, SDi brought on Gene Locklear, an artificial intelligence research scientist, to spearhead our efforts to take advantage of these opportunities. Learn more about how Locklear is combining his AI and machine learning expertise with military experience to pursue exciting new R&D work at Sentient Digital, Inc..
Merging AI and the Military in R&D
Gene Locklear’s journey into the research sector was not a short one. Following an over 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, Locklear went back to school for his bachelor’s degree. Currently, he is finishing his PhD in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.
When Locklear first went back to school, he was 45 years old. Many people asked him whether it was worth it to continue his education. But for him, there was no question.
From a young age, Locklear wanted to be a scientist. He remembers being captivated by Craig Reynolds’ Boids program, which was developed in 1986. That simulation modeled the flocking patterns of birds, and when Locklear saw Reynolds’ documentation, he knew he wanted to learn this type of application-building. Even as a kid, Locklear was also fascinated by the military. This enthusiasm for both science and the military would eventually give him a unique perspective and advantage in the field of government R&D.
Like many others, Locklear entered the Marine Corps as a path to pay for college. Before joining the armed forces, he had always planned to get back to his education. But he ended up on a much longer detour than expected, because he was genuinely passionate about his work in the military. This makes Locklear’s role at SDi, which builds on his expertise as an AI researcher and experience in the Marine Corps, a perfect fit.
When he joined Sentient Digital, Inc. in September 2019, after years of discussions with SDi President Chris Mobley, Locklear became the head of a new department dedicated to seeking out and applying for government contracts. The two knew each other from their time in the Marine Corps in the 1980s and ’90s, where they explored the business ideas that would eventually form Sentient Digital, Inc..
While in the Marine Corps, Mobley and Locklear began to envision how they could leverage their academic backgrounds in science and their on-the-ground experience in the military to make SDi a leading technology contractor for the armed forces. Today, the combination of these areas of expertise helps give SDi an edge over our competition, which often has technical knowledge but lacks a working understanding of how to apply it effectively in a military context.
How We Acquire Government R&D Contracts
Without intimate knowledge of how military technology will be implemented in real time, it is difficult to successfully fulfill contracts for such tech. At Sentient Digital, Inc., our long-term program combining artificial intelligence and war-fighting seeks to overcome this obstacle in government R&D. With their combined experience in the Marine Corps and scientific study, Mobley and Locklear are working to secure SDi’s position as a leader in the military technology solutions industry.
Part of Locklear’s job is to find short-term contracts that fit within the larger goal of creating commercially viable proprietary technology that SDi can then apply in other contexts. Many government-funded R&D opportunities, including those in the SBIR and STTR programs, allow small businesses like ours to fulfill specific technology needs, then later commercialize that tech and profit from it.
The length of these government contracts can be just six months to two years, so Locklear is always looking for the next project. Many of them are through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which oversees SBIR and STTR. These two programs specifically give priority to small businesses, enabling them to compete for coveted government R&D contracts. Both SBIR and STTR allow firms to simultaneously help fulfill government technology needs and develop their own products for commercialization.
When searching for opportunities for SDi, Locklear says that he’s often looking for places where his team of AI engineers can build models to solve specific problems. Other areas of focus include simulation, I.T., and cyber security, so Locklear is always searching for strong matches with SDi’s capabilities.
DARPA lists all available contracts online, and the GovWin IQ website helps small businesses like ours plan ahead and pursue bids that meet our needs and specialties. The application process is quite involved, and companies are required to submit formal proposals that meet specific length and content guidelines. Locklear collaborates with other colleagues at SDi to create an appropriate timeline, budget, and scope of work.
Locklear notes that the biggest challenge for Sentient Digital, Inc. and other small businesses when applying to government R&D contracts is having a limited staff. With a smaller team, firms have to be very focused with their applications, because their work is likely more specialized.
But Locklear sees SDi’s size as a strength, too. It allows us to avoid some of the bureaucracy of larger organizations. SDi is able to be more nimble when exploring new ideas, instead of getting bogged down trying to find consensus across a large staff. This kind of agility is especially critical when breaking new ground in the tech field.
Looking to the Future of Technology R&D
Now, Locklear is an instructor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in addition to the role he performs at SDi. His university job gives him access to a tremendous amount of academic resources, including databases, magazines, and collaboration with his colleagues. New ideas and research he encounters at the university help deepen the perspective he brings to SDi.
Locklear also loves being able to share his life experiences and unconventional career path with younger people trying to find their own way. His advice to those looking to pursue jobs in technology and R&D is to recognize the importance of education and training. Because so many companies across industries are interested in artificial intelligence, knowing the ins and outs of AI—and how to create custom solutions—will be crucial.
Are you interested in producing innovative technology R&D? We want to hear from you! Contact us online or by calling 504-308-1464 today to learn more about our career opportunities.