In-Q-Tel and 3D Printing, Part 2: What Does It Want with 3D Printing?

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Knowing some of In-Q-Tel’s backstory, we wondered specifically what the firm was looking for from Voxel8, Arevo and Fuel3D. We have so far received responses amounting to “no comment” from each firm, though Arevo was the only one to say explicitly that it could not comment on their relationship with In-Q-Tel. As for Voxel8 and Fuel3D, we simply haven’t heard back.

There are, of course, potential applications that we could theorize for each startup. Voxel8 has at least been public about its work with another government non-profit, the MITRE Corporation. With the MITRE Sensors and Electromagnetic Systems Department, Voxel8 assisted in the creation of wideband phased antenna arrays using the startup’s initial Developer’s Kit 3D printer. This system was capable of printing plastic simultaneously with conductive silver ink. The antenna was reportedly less expensive, lighter and better performing than a metal predecessor made with traditional techniques. Due to 3D features of the antenna, it made more sense to use 3D printing to fabricate the array than other methods.

Interestingly, in an In-Q-Tel report from 2012, one chapter’s authors proposed the intelligence community might use an electronics 3D printer for the fabrication of embedded electronics, including antenna arrays. Other applications of 3D printing described by the authors were the ability to incorporate “individualized electromagnetic or optical sensor signature[s]” into printed parts. It’s quite possible, then, that the work Voxel8 performed with MITRE is similar to what the intelligence community is looking for out of the startup.

As for Arevo and Fuel3D, there is less evidence for what applications the technology might serve—or, really, the applications are pretty broad. Arevo is dedicated to 3D printing continuous reinforcement material, such as carbon fiber. This could mean 3D printing strong, durable, and lightweight structures for just about any use case, from unmanned aerial vehicles to more rugged cases for military equipment.

When Fuel3D announced its investment from the U.S. intelligence outfit, it was focused on its unique user-friendly 3D scanner capable of capturing a high-resolution, full-color 3D model in less than 0.1 second. This could be used for replacing parts out in the field of battle or performing facial recognition of persons of interest.

A rapid face scan from a Fuel3D scanner. Image courtesy of Fuel3D.

All three startups are currently involved in activities that seem about as far from military intelligence as one could imagine. Though Fuel3D originally showcased its Scanify product for facial scanning on a regular basis, it is now more focused on medical 3D scanning, specifically tracking tumor growth. However, it does still pitch facial scanning for the purchase of glasses. Arevo mostly demonstrates its composites printing for the fabrication of bicycle frames. Voxel8 is no longer publicly working on electronics 3D printing but is instead selling systems for 3D printing athletic wear.

It may be a cliché to point this out, but intelligence organizations, and the CIA in particular, use any means possible to perform their operations. In at least one instance, In-Q-Tel was used to exploit its Silicon Valley investments to perform surveillance. In 2016, the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise contracted Dataminr through In-Q-Tel to sift through raw Twitter data. Tangentially related is the story of Narus, which supplied hardware capable of analyzing Internet communications, to AT&T that was then accessed by the NSA. Information retrieved by the Narus STA 6400 device could then be mined by Attensity, a firm invested in by In-Q-Tel.

Even if startups had no ethical qualms with the investment firm, one wonders if they might be troubled from a financial perspective. In a New York Post article that has since been scrubbed from the internet, but is preserved here, it is reported that “more than four dozen insiders” from In-Q-Tel may have been participating in a pump-and-dump scheme that involved boosting penny stocks and then selling shares for profit. The Post reported:

In the same way that In-Q-Tel invested in Electro-Energy when it was still privately held and preparing to go public through a “reverse merger” with a defunct penny stock shell company, the fund invested in Ionatron in October of 2003 when it was still privately owned and controlled by a businessman named Robert Howard.

The filings show that initially In-Q-Tel agreed to pay $500,000 for 1,028,076 shares, representing an oddly precise imputed price of 48.6 cents per share. Thereafter it merged with a failed penny stock in the weed killer and grass seed business and began trading in April of last year on the Over The Counter bulletin board at roughly $3 per share.

Relaying information from SEC filings, the Post writes that In-Q-Tel then backed out of its investment, arranging to settle with just 725,000 shares instead of the almost 1.03 million. Based on the obligatory employee fund system mentioned in part one, 75 percent of these shares were held by In-Q-Tel and the remaining 25 percent held by the employees in a for profit entity called the “In-Q-Tel Employees Fund LLC.”

All 725,000 shares were sold on March 18, 2005, triggering the stock to collapse, but netting a profit of 1,400 percent for the In-Q-Tel employees, according to The Post, with 17 taking home over $50,000 each. The author doesn’t claim that the pump-and-dump was intentional and suggests that In-Q-Tel may have merely pulled out over uncertainty about Ionatron’s technology. However, there are obvious issues that need to be considered with relation to public taxes financing the investment whims of a CIA-backed firm.

It is obviously under the discretion of any startup from whom they accept investments, but understanding the applications of a technology in its political context could be crucial to making such a decision. In fact, it might be because of the CIA’s role in global and national affairs that a business might choose to work with In-Q-Tel. If it isn’t, however, enterprising inventors might consider a letter written by the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, and published in The Atlantic. Without posting the entire letter, here is a brief excerpt that captures the essence:

I have received from you a note in which you state that you are engaged in a project concerning controlled missiles, and in which you request a copy of a paper which I wrote for the National Defense Research Committee during the war…

[When you] turn to me for information concerning controlled missiles, there are several considerations which determine my reply. In the past, the comity of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: the policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may enquire of him. The interchange of ideas which is one of the great traditions of science must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death…

The practical use of guided missiles can only be to kill foreign civilians indiscriminately, and it furnishes no protection whatsoever to civilians in this country…

If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenceless peoples – and I most certainly do not – I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.

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