Bob Kocher has always been into innovation. So, it was only natural that when he found himself working as a program manager for the government, a larger drive was brewing within him — to strike out on his own. Today, Kocher has done just that, and more. As founder and president of Ideal Innovations, Kocher and his team lead the way in providing specialized, responsive technology consulting for the government in areas affecting the health and safety of deployed forces and U.S. citizens. In the following Q&A, Kocher talks about the merits of running his own show and how he anticipates solutions well ahead of the game.
Can you tell us a little about your background before starting Ideal Innovations?
Bob Kocher: I was a program manager at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) from 1991-1996, where we implemented a lot of innovative approaches for the Department of Defense. DARPA has about 200 people and their annual budget is about $2 to $3 billion. DARPA is like an inventions company, where we would look at difficult problems to solve, figure out ways to solve them, and then come up with solutions. When I left DARPA I started Ideal Innovations because I like that type of work.
What motivated you to strike out on your own?
Bob Kocher: If you want to execute innovative solutions, you need to be a small company. If you’re in a big organization, it’s much more difficult — innovation doesn’t grow well in a big organization, whether federal or private. In fact, a lot of big companies get their ideas from small companies. If you work for a big company they have a specific job for you and they tell you, “Hey, this is what you’ve got to do.” When you work for a small company, you have more room to determine what you can bring to the organization.
Fast-forward to today — you’re one of the fastest growing companies in the DC area. What accounts for that growth?
Bob Kocher: Primarily, the government needs expertise, they needed it quick, and we have the answers. Also, since we’re a small company, we can deliver higher quality at a lower price since we don’t have a lot of overhead. You get to be the fastest growing company by winning contracts, and we’re good at winning contracts.
How would you characterize Ideal Innovations’ winning approach?
Bob Kocher: We try to be ahead of the requirement. We look and say, “What is the next problem?” Then, we try figuring out how to solve it. To do that you have to be what we call “forward deployed.” We do a lot of work in Iraq, for example. Almost all of our senior management goes into Iraq — I’ve been there 12 times — and because we’re in the environment, we understand the issues, we understand the problems, so we’re able to think ahead of the problem, before the military ever says, “Hey, there’s a problem.”
To what other peacekeeping environments has your work taken you?
Bob Kocher: I’ve been on U.S. deployments to Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia.
Along with forensics and biometrics, what other areas does Ideal Innovations work in?
Bob Kocher: Ideal Innovations does work in forensics, biometrics, and identity management in general. We also do information systems— we have 20 scientists who work on problems with DoD, problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, CENTCOM, dealing with counter-terrorism. We have 42 people working with the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). So, while we do have a lot of biometrics and forensics work, we focus on other areas, too — ultimately, all our work centers around identifying problems and trying to come up with ways to solve them.
What are some of your latest contracts?
Bob Kocher: Back in 2005, when we saw EFP weapons destroying our vehicles, the Humvee, over in Iraq, we quickly put together ideas and approaches for a new vehicle that would protect the soldiers — to offer levels of protection never seen in the past. We just won an IDIQ contract for building the MRAP IIvehicle. We went out, we got the best team, the best folks to run the program
How do you attract and retain top people?
Bob Kocher: When somebody comes in, we ask, “What do you like doing?” If that is relevant, that’s what we’re going to have them do.
What sorts of mentors have fostered your through the years?
Bob Kocher: I spent 21 years in the military, the last 10 in research and development, and I think a lot of the military leaders I’ve worked with would fit in that category — people who demonstrated personal courage, integrity, looking at the facts and figuring out a way ahead.
And that’s what you’re doing now …
Bob Kocher: Yes. For instance, we do patents here. This may sound strange, but the real innovation in a patent is not a patent, it’s the problem you are solving. I would rather solve the problem of a hot coffee cup — where I can simply wrap a piece of cardboard around it — versus solving some space armor problem on a spaceship.
What keeps you motivated?
Bob Kocher: Solving problems.
How do you deal with a bad day?
Bob Kocher: You do a lot of things. In a day there are some things that go wrong and some things that go right. Just count the things that went right that day.
What’s your idea of fun?
Bob Kocher: My idea of fun is being a kid again when I play with my five year old daughter.