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Innovations for the Swiss Armed Forces

It’s often start-ups that have innovative ideas. The Cyber Start-up Challenge at the Cyber Defence Campus is offering young companies the chance to introduce their ideas for secure cyber space to the Swiss Armed Forces. The challenge is thus offering a great opportunity not only to the young companies but also to the Swiss Armed Forces.

Science and Technology, Department of Business Processes

Portrait of Dr. Colin Barschel

Dr. Colin Barschel is responsible for industry collaborations at armasuisse S+T and for implementing the Cyber Start-up Challenge at the Cyber Defence Campus.

Mr. Barschel, the Cyber Start-up Challenge is currently taking place. Can you explain more about this, and how did you have the idea of doing something like this?
The idea behind the challenge is to test new innovative technologies for the Swiss Armed Forces quickly. Ultimately, it’s about a market analysis and finding young companies for this purpose who have ideas on particular topics in the cyber area. The USA and Israel work together with start-ups a lot and manage programmes for testing their technologies. Even though it’s on a completely different scale than us here in Switzerland and with a different legal framework, but these countries can thus introduce innovations to their armed forces. The question is whether we can also do this. 

Does that mean that these countries are also carrying out start-up challenges?
No, they don’t do challenges per se, they have different approaches. But the goal is the same: Exploring the market in order to find, step by step, an appropriate technology and the right company. This technology is then tested according to the set requirements. We decided on the challenge approach, as we view it as a quick way of attracting interesting companies and technologies with a manageable effort on both sides.

Who is the target audience of the start-up challenge?
The challenge is aimed at start-ups, in other words companies who are younger than six years old and have ideas on cyber topics. These young companies often have new approaches and disruptive ideas which we don’t necessarily receive from large companies.

Why are start-ups more innovative?
In order to survive as a start-up, you need to create a product which nobody else has. Otherwise the market is already occupied. As a result, start-ups often have ideas or approaches which do not exist yet. This means that they can do things faster or better than established companies, for example, or have completely new ideas which we had not thought of. As a small start-up, I need to develop quickly in order to survive and introduce approaches which are better than others.

For which topic are you seeking ideas in this challenge?
We are trying to find a technology on the subject of «Cyber Threat Intelligence»*. This is a relatively broad topic and there are many ways in which one could proceed. Possible topics would be approaches on how to better understand a danger or an attack. Or it might easily be that we want to better understand a hacker forum, for example, if exotic language or slang is used. So there are really very different subject areas.


* The specialist discipline of «Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI)» uses intelligence techniques and methods to capture and filter all relevant information from cyberspace. Read more on this topic in the interview with Dr. Alain Mermoud.


What are you hoping to achieve with the challenge?
We want to find innovative solutions for the Swiss Armed Forces quickly and test then. We are thus looking to find technologies and companies which are still unknown to the Armed Forces. However, introducing innovations to the Swiss Armed Forces is not so easy, as an innovation by definition also brings with it certain risks and uncertainty in the results. However, in the cyber area, you don’t always need perfectly tested solutions which do not entail any risks at implementation and where you know exactly how they work. Very often, it is more important to have a technological advantage over attackers, which is why new cyber technologies should be identified as early as possible. .
We want to accelerate innovation with this challenge. This means that we will test and research the technologies before they are ready for the market. This enables us to weigh up the opportunities and risks and promotes innovation in the Armed Forces.

Which risks do innovations entail?
Sometimes things work wonderfully in the laboratory, but in the field or during integration in existing systems, side-effects occur which were previously unforeseen. One example: a technology must be integrated into an existing network. Problems might occur here, depending on how the various systems talk with each other at protocol level. Problems might also occur with the cryptography, in other words, whether the systems understand each other. However: By examining the innovation in advance, we can minimise such risks before the technologies are actually used.

Which ideas have been introduced? Are you able to tell us anything about this?
I can’t tell you much at the moment. But I can tell you this: 22 companies have registered and presented their technologies. This includes international companies, which was interesting to see. Around one-third of the solutions could not be taken into consideration as they were not suitable for the specified topic, although some of them were very good proposals. We are currently in the selection procedure phase. The three best solutions will be selected by a committee consisting of members of the CYD Campus and the client at the Armed Forces. These three start-ups will present their ideas to the Cyber Defence Conference on November 3. Unfortunately, only one start-up will be able to continue.

What is the next step for the start-up?
The selected company will receive an order from us to create a Proof of Concept for the Armed Forces. That means that we test a technology in a real environment and not in a laboratory. And this technology could be immature or require adjustments in order to be integrated into the systems of the Swiss Armed Forces. This Proof of Concept will also demonstrate the dependency of various applications and the functionality of interfaces. The project will be implemented next year.

Will there be another challenge next year?
That depends. On the one hand we need to evaluate how the whole thing will continue and extract the lessons learned, while on the other there is also a need for a requirement in the Swiss Armed Forces. There’s no point in searching for innovations if there is no demand for them. It therefore remains to be seen whether a further challenge will be started in a particular area or not. I am confident that we will carry out similar market research in the future, for example, in the form of this challenge.


Read more about "Cyber Threat Intelligence" in the interview with Dr. Alain Mermoud: