New defence-innovation agency helps Adelaide AI spinoff enter US market

Fivecast is a scaleup Australian technology company that is winning contracts at the heart of America’s huge defence and national security community. Fivecast has gained strategic new clients in the US less than two years after setting up in Washington.

The company’s success highlights fast-growing opportunities for Australian tech in the US. It shows:

  • How a US Department of Defense (DoD) organisation, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), lowers the barriers to entry and accelerates commercial technology to the DoD.    
  • How Austrade can help Australian technology startups and scaleups to make contacts in the US and demonstrate their capabilities to US agencies.

Today, a major US national security contract is powering world-class cyber tech development in Adelaide. Employee headcount has risen from 17 to 50 since mid-2019, and another small Australian tech company is quickly going global.

To find out more about how Austrade can help tech companies expand in the US, please contact John Leslie, Austrade, San Francisco.

AI scaleup sells to Australian law-enforcement agencies

Fivecast began life in 2014 as a Government-backed research program called ‘Data-to-Decisions’. It formed part of a South Australian-based Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). The program assembled top-grade mathematicians, data scientists and Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts.

The team’s goal was straightforward: to help national defence, security and law-enforcement agencies to identify potential threats from the torrent of digital content that appears online every day.

The Data-to-Decisions project rapidly became a success. Within three years, the small team had created AI and machine learning technology that enables agencies to filter and analyse huge volumes of online content. 

In 2017, the researchers established ‘Fivecast’ as a spin-off from the CRC program. The company’s main solution is called ‘Fivecast ONYX’. It enables analysts and intelligence teams to conduct highly targeted open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigations with amazing speed.

Fivecast ONYX was adopted by state and federal law-enforcement bodies in Australia. These included defence and intelligence agencies, as well as other government departments.

Washington DC office becomes first step in US expansion

Fivecast became popular quickly in the Australian intelligence community, helping agencies to tackle violent extremism, terrorism, trans-national crime, security vetting, fraud and other threats.

According to Fivecast VP National Security and co-founder, Duane Rivett, Australian customers were so impressed, they started referring Fivecast to US counterparts. But overseas expansion required additional funds.

‘In 2019, we secured venture capital from the investment arm of CSIRO, Main Sequence Ventures,’ says Rivett. ‘We matched this with investment from the South Australian Venture Capital Fund. In mid-2019, I moved to Washington DC. Our objective: to break into the vast US defence and intelligence community.’

Fivecast quickly established a US office in the DC area and built a team to drive business development and support US-based customers.

New US agency, DIU, helps startups and commercial technology companies access defence programs

In the US, Fivecast was the beneficiary of a DoD organisation – the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU). The organisation had just been set up. Its purpose was to accelerate the adoption of innovative technologies by the US military and various security agencies.

‘The purpose of the DIU is to make it easier for innovators to gain access to the US defence market,’ says John Leslie, Trade Development Manager for Austrade in San Francisco. ‘The DIU creates an opening to ‘non-traditional’ defence suppliers, including SMEs. It’s an ideal way for small Australian innovators to establish a foothold within the US defence and security community.’

But to make its mark, Fivecast had to move quickly. According to Dr Brenton Cooper, CEO and Co-founder of Fivecast, speed was vital.

‘We had very ambitious goals and we were confident in our technology’ he says. ‘Our company was applying advanced AI and machine learning to some of the world’s biggest and most important challenges. Our technology and our mission to enable a safer world was a good match with DIU objectives.

‘But there were huge challenges to creating a US business in the middle of a pandemic. We needed to establish the right networks – and we needed to establish credibility. Austrade helped with both.’

Austrade helps Fivecast showcase AI tech to US security community

Austrade liaison officers in Washington helped Fivecast to show their technology capabilities to US officials. Fivecast also demonstrated to officials how their technology could help them achieve important intelligence missions. This included paving the way for Fivecast to join a demonstration program that was previously only open to US entities.

‘We drew on Austrade’s contacts and experience in key US agencies,’ says Rivett. ‘Official networks were invaluable. Austrade could point to our success with a variety of agencies in Australia that had similar objectives to US security agencies’.

‘Austrade briefings also helped. Advisors helped us to understand how our part of the US security market worked.’

Solution pitch leads to prototyping and contract award

In mid-2020, advisors encouraged Fivecast to submit for a DIU solicitation, which culminated in a ‘Solution Pitch’.

Fivecast was selected as a viable and compelling vendor, and received the go-ahead to initiate a prototype in November 2020. Since then, the DIU prototype has progressed quickly, with DoD customers exploring its use for multiple mission sets.

During this time, Fivecast also received support from three sources:

Fivecast and Austrade will continue to work together around the world.

‘Fivecast is an example of an innovative Australian scaleup committed to global expansion’ says Jonathan Saw, Global Engagement Manager, Austrade. ‘Austrade’s Global Engagement Teams continue to work with Fivecast to help them replicate their success in the US in other key markets.’

DIU is tailor-made to attract scale up innovators

According to Leslie, Fivecast’s success shows that the US defence industry is becoming more open to small, talented tech companies. Also, Australia’s status as a ‘Five Eyes’ ally helps Australian companies gain access to sensitive projects.

‘The rules governing DIU are suited to the constraints of small companies,’ he says. ‘For example, they permit a company to progress from a pilot to production and procurement contracts without further competitive bidding. This reduces the costs and risks of working with defence agencies.’

US exports trigger Australian tech development

Leslie says that Fivecast shows how exports deliver a double benefit to Australian tech. Companies that do well overseas begin to generate exports in markets where agency and company budgets can be huge. For fast movers, fresh markets can deliver ultra-rapid growth.

But there’s also an IP advantage. Working for highly sophisticated agencies in the US triggers high-value development work in Australia. In Fivecast’s case, this means Adelaide.

‘Fivecast illustrates a pattern where Australian tech companies establish a presence in the US, and this in turn powers world-class research and software-development back at company headquarters in Australia,’ says Leslie.

Australia-based AI research popular in US, UK

The prospects look bright. Cooper says that Fivecast is now leveraging its Australia-based skills into markets around the world – including the UK.

‘This is a great example of world-leading Australian technology innovation – and it springs from research that was started with Government support here in Australia,’ he says.

‘The contract with DIU has given us the confidence to expand our global workforce. If we can succeed with the defence and security community in the US, I believe we can succeed anywhere.’ 

About Austrade

The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) is the Australian Government’s international trade promotion and investment attraction agency.

We deliver quality trade and investment services to businesses to grow Australia’s prosperity. We do this by generating and providing market information and insights, promoting Australian capability, and facilitating connections through our extensive global network.

To discover how we can help you and your business, visit austrade.gov.au or contact us at info@austrade.gov.au or on 13 28 78 (within Australia).

To find out more about how Austrade can help tech companies expand in the US, please contact John Leslie, Austrade, San Francisco.

About Fivecast

Fivecast is a world-leading provider of digital intelligence solutions that enable the world’s most important public and private organizations to explore masses of data, uncovering actionable insights which are critical to protecting global communities.

Purpose-built to address the highest priority use cases in the national security, law enforcement and defence markets, Fivecast deploys advanced data collection and AI-enabled analytics to solve the most complex intelligence challenges. 

www.fivecast.com