US military hopes to mine tech brains in the Midwest with opening of new Chicago office

The Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit also has offices on both coasts and in Texas.

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Major Ryan Whelan, the Midwest engagement lead for the Defense Innovation Unit, speaks during a press conference at the MxD headquarters in the Goose Island neighborhood, Thursday morning, April 22, 2022, where officials announced the grand opening of the Department of Defense’s fifth Defense Innovation Unit office, which is housed at the Discovery Partners Institute.

Maj. Ryan Whelan talked Thursday about the opening of a Defense Innovation Unit office in Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A wristwatch that tells a sailor getting ready to board an aircraft carrier if he or she is sick and possibly about to spread COVID-19 to the rest of the crew.

Backup electric batteries for a tank to save fuel. How important might that be?

“Ask the Russians,” said Mike Brown, director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit, referring to how chronic fuel shortages have hampered the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Brown was in Chicago on Thursday, along with local military brass, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a couple hundred other invited guests to celebrate the opening of a DIU office in the city — the first in the Midwest.

The unit works with commercial businesses to “rapidly prototype” already available technologies to tweak them for military uses. The unit has offices on both coasts and in Texas.

Representatives from the unit said tech companies from Chicago and the rest of the Midwest have been “underrepresented” in the military. The new office aims to change that.

“We do have a number of large installations in the Midwest, but we haven’t done a good job of reaching through those installations to engage communities here,” said U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Ryan Whelan, DIU’s Midwest engagement lead.

The new office, at 200 S. Wacker Drive, will at first have just a handful of employees.

Since the unit’s creation seven years ago, the Defense Department has awarded a total of $100 million in prototype contracts for 15 companies, Brown said.

“Our goal is to get companies on production contracts,” Brown said. “If we are successfully prototyping technologies like these, like the tactical vehicle hybridization, then they move into production with the Department of Defense, and that means billions of dollars of contracts.”

Pritzker called Thursday’s announcement a “momentous occasion.”

“It’s the industry that I came out of when I decided to run for governor, and so every step that we take forward to me is like baby steps of your own child in a way as it grows up,” he said.

Lightfoot said the announcement is an “important validation” of the city’s thriving “ecosystem of innovative startups.”

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