CIA starts 'fun' high-tech fund

The CIA is opening a venture capital business. Bizarre? There's more: The operation will be run by a game exec.

The CIA is opening a venture capital business targeting emerging technologies -- and has hired a well-known Silicon Valley executive to run the operation.

But just as the Central Intelligence Agency is not your typical VC, Gilman Louie is not your typical spook. He made a fortune designing games and running several well-known game companies, Spectrum Holobyte and Microprose. Now you can call him the next Goldfinger -- the man whose Midas touch could bring seed money to key startups, and keep the CIA ahead of the technology curve.

"Mistakes have been made as a result of not getting to information fast enough to make the right decision," said Louie on Wednesday. "The CIA needs to move at the speed of the Internet and not at the speed of government."

Louie, 39, will serve as CEO of the CIA's new venture capital firm, In-Q-It. The 20-person, Washington D.C.-based firm is charged with ensuring the CIA has access to the latest information technology. According to Louie, none of In-Q-It's work will be classified, and the commercial and consumer sectors will have access to the developing technologies. He recognises this open attitude marks a significant departure for an agency best known for its top secret, covert operations. "You would think the CIA would do this in secret," Louie said, "but they've realised they're just not keeping up with the technology industry. The risk for them to fail is much greater than some of the other government agencies, so in their mind they have to do this."

In-Q-It, financed with $28m in federal funds, will supply venture funding or work in joint ventures on four areas where the CIA needs immediate assistance: improving Internet security, updating the agency's ageing computer technology, developing ways to process immense amounts of data, and integrating previous data systems into one, general system.

Louie, well known for developing the Falcon air-combat simulator video game, said he always wanted to find a way to serve his country. But "not in a million years" did he imagine his route to government work would take him to the CIA. "When I first heard about this job I went out and bought every book ever written about the CIA," Louie said. "The CIA has a chequered past. It's had a lot of successes and a lot of failures, probably more than we'll ever know about."

That curtain of secrecy could be In-Q-It's weakest link, said Jim Breyer, managing partner at venture capitalist Accel Partners. "The big challenge with this effort is the ability to move quickly, decisively and predictably in the investment decision-making process. If they are allowed to operate in a similar manner to other Silicon Valley VCs, this is likely to succeed," predicted Breyer. "If bureaucracy stands in the way, no doubt it will fail."

Breyer added that "Historically, large corporations have failed in their VC efforts because they didn't get the structure right from the start." He thinks that letting outsiders control its direction is the right move.

Breyer, who invested in Microprose, had high praise for Louie. "Gilman Louie is an outstanding entrepreneur. He has exceptional vision. He's a strong manager and he has a deep understanding of technology. These are all important attributes in a leader who will take on a role like this with the CIA."

Louie says the majority of In-Q-It's employees will not require security clearance and will not be subject to the CIA's intense background checks, but that's not to say there won't be some precautions. "In some ways, the Valley has much tighter security clearances than most government agencies," he explained.

Even the CIA manages to have fun sometimes, as Louie found out during an early conversation with the CIA about the source of the In-Q-It name. "When I first saw the name, I was told 'IN' stands for intelligence, 'IT' for information technology, and 'Q' for the James Bond character," Louie explained. Q is the British minister of gadgets in the Bond films. "I reminded them that Q is British and we're working for the US. We all got a good chuckle out of that one."

A year ago, Louie sold his company, Microprose, to Hasbro Interactive in a deal estimated at $70m. Louie said reaction to his decision to leave his position at Hasbro has been "generally positive". "There are two camps actually," he added. "One says 'why are you doing this, walking away from all this money?' The other recognises that if you want to change government, you have to go in and get your hands dirty."

Louie hopes his efforts to get his hands dirty will not go unnoticed. He thinks it could mark the start of a trend of government and private business working together. "I am very hopeful that if we are successful, then in five years there may be half a dozen new versions of In-Q-It for other government agencies," he said.

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