Strengthening America’s manufacturing base
U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu serves as the Department of Defense’s chief technology officer. In a recent talk at MIT, she spoke about the DoD’s initiatives to build a stronger U.S. manufacturing base and to tackle the country’s “toughest challenges.”
President Biden nominated Shyu as under secretary in April 2021, and three months later she stepped into the role. She is responsible for supporting research, development, and prototyping across the DoD.
In her talk, which was part of the Manufacturing@MIT Distinguished Speaker Series, she touched on many areas, including funding startups “so good ideas don’t languish,” training a manufacturing workforce, strengthening U.S. supply chains, preparing for climate change, preventing intellectual property theft, supporting “leap-ahead” technologies, and rebuilding America’s semiconductor industry.
She described the recently announced DoD Office of Strategic Capital (OSC), which will provide capital to help innovative companies go from promising prototypes to scaled production, and will team with DoD agencies and the private sector. Through this approach, she said OSC will seek to prevent promising prototypes from ending up in a “Valley of Death” that lies between innovation and bringing new products to market. She explained that the DoD wants to do more to help young companies jump-start their operations. “The government needs to embrace strategic public investment as a key tool to achieving our full economic potential,” she said.
The under secretary is also leading a call for proposals for nine microelectronics regional hubs across the United States as part of $2 billion in CHIPS Act funding that the DoD will distribute. She described the value of connecting regional startups, larger companies, and universities to spur innovation: “We will be standing up multiple regional hubs that can leverage innovative research from universities to help develop the next generation of chips.”
Smaller businesses and startups, Shyu said, often do not know how to navigate the DoD. “I’m sure many of you will develop novel ideas in your research here and decide to spin off a technology into a startup company,” she said. “So how you do you connect to the DoD? That’s a daunting task!” She said she is determined to help fix this, by relaunching the site cto.innovation.mil, so companies and researchers find the right contacts in the DoD.
Shyu said another priority was strengthening the U.S. workforce. For instance, this year her office funded 482 Smart Scholars, and plans to increase that number. Smart Scholars receive free university tuition. When they graduate, they then commit to working for the DoD for the number of years the DoD covered their tuition.
MIT has led a number of workforce programs with the DoD’s Manufacturing Technology Office, including standing up the manufacturing careers platform buildyourfuture.us. MIT is also closely tied to the nine DoD manufacturing innovation institutes that Shyu’s office oversees.
After the talk, Shyu visited labs across campus. MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Eric Evans and Bob Shin joined Under Secretary Shyu to hear from Lisa Kelley, Joel Grimm, and Scott VanBroeken about student projects at MIT Beaver Works and about Beaver Works’ summer institute for high school students. Professor Vladimir Bulovic guided her through MIT.nano and described MIT’s fabrication and characterization capabilities. She also visited Professor Zack Cordero’s lab in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Professor Klav Jensen’s in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Professor Chris Voigt’s lab in the Department of Biological Engineering — all of whom presented a wide range of research programs that the DoD has supported.
The Manufacturing@MIT working group hosted Shyu’s visit as part of its new Distinguished Speaker Series. The series launched in Fall 2022, and its first speaker was Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.