Entrepreneurial heavyweight Steve Blank thinks the “lean startup” methodology -- in which new businesses rapidly experiment and gather feedback before executing any plans -- could help solve the nation’s most pressing defense problems.
Blank, who developed the Lean Launchpad course taught at Stanford University, wants to bridge the geographic and cultural gap between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. This spring, he and a team of retired military officers plan to teach a class called “Hacking for Defense” at Stanford's engineering school, in which students will focus on challenges volunteered by Defense Department and intelligence community end users.
Students, who apply in teams to work on one of four challenges, will present hypotheses each week to representatives from the defense and intelligence communities, Blank told Nextgov. The idea is to rapidly iterate, pivot and build minimum viable prototypes -- all tenets of the lean startup methodology.
Blank said he thinks some tech-focused students would be more likely to volunteer for national service if there were shorter-term opportunities, other than programs such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America, the Peace Corps or the military’s ROTC.
“I realized, what if we went to the DOD or the intelligence community and said, ‘Give us some problems and in fact, we could have the best and brightest students working on [them] and we could give you prototypes in eight weeks,'" he said.
This is one of many recent attempts to marry Silicon Valley’s culture of experimentation and risk taking with DOD. Last year, for instance, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the Pentagon planned to open an outpost in Silicon Valley to tap into the region’s concentration of technology talent.
“Hacking for Defense” challenges include building a wearable system that would let divers monitor their physiological condition while underwater; creating virtual assistance to help foreign national military and law enforcement “counter improvised threats"; and designing an app for communication between international organizations, such as the United Nations, federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as state and local or civilian populations, especially during disaster response.
“With ISIS moving at a speed that looks like a blur to us . . . there’s a continuous disruption going on where we’re not actually implementing continuous innovation,” Blank said. The defense and intelligence communities have “islands of innovation,” but they lack a “process to actually innovate and deploy . . . at speed."
Potential terrorists are also comfortable using “Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, YouTube, wikis, IM/chat. Targeting, assessments, technology, recipes and tactics [that] all flow at the speed of a Lean Startup,” he wrote in a blog post. “They can crowdsource designs, find components through eBay, fund through PayPal, train using virtual worlds and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using massive online gaming. All while we’re still writing a Request for a Proposal from within the U.S. government procurement and acquisition channels.”
Applications designed in the class could be viable in the private sector, too, Blank said -- the safety product for divers, for instance -- though he insists all development in the class is open source and public.
Pete Newell, a retired colonel who served as director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and who is also part of the teaching team, told Nextgov military end users can actually adopt the solutions they see in student presentations or opt to work with those students through formal contracts later or offer job opportunities.
“The transition out of the class could be as simple as the [military] sponsor [saying], ‘You four students . . . we want to fly you to whatever base and we want you to expand your discussion with more users and develop it further,’” Newell said.
The class also aims to “foster the idea that the government does provide a [business] opportunity for entrepreneurs, from a commercial standpoint.”
Joe Felter, also a retired colonel and part of Blank's team, said he eventually hopes to scale the program to other universities, though Hacking for Defense is the first iteration of an experiment. He called the class a “tech ROTC,” noting, “there should be a wider array of options” for students who want to work on DOD technology programs.
Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry plans to advise the class, which runs between March 29 and May 31. Accepted students are expected to invest at least 15-20 hours a week.
Lead, follow or get the heck out of the way
In peacetime the U.S. military is an immovable and inflexible bureaucracy. In wartime it can adapt and adopt organizational change with startling speed.
BMNT, a new Silicon Valley company, is combining the Lean Methods it learned in combat with the technology expertise and speed of startups.
But first some history…
World War II
In World War II the U.S. government reengineered its approach to building weapons. In a major break from the past, where the military designed all its own weapons, 10,000 scientists and engineers from academia worked in civilian-run weapons labs (most headquartered in universities) in an organization called the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).
OSRD was tasked to develop military weapons systems and solve military problems but had wide autonomy to determine how to accomplish its tasks and organize its labs. (The weapons were then manufactured in volume by U.S. corporations.)
The OSRD developed advanced electronics: radar, electronic warfare, rockets, sonar, proximity fuse, Napalm, the Bazooka and new drugs such as penicillin and cures for malaria. One OSRD project – the Manhattan Project – the development of the atomic bomb – was so secret and important that it was spun off as a separate program. The University of California managed research and development of the bomb design at Los Alamos while the US Army managed the Los Alamos facilities and the overall administration of the project.
After the war the U.S. split up the functions of the OSRD. Nuclear weapons went to the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), basic weapons systems research went to the Department of Defense (DOD) and all U.S. biomedical and health research went back to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1950, government support of basic science research in U.S. universities became the charter of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each of these independent research organizations would support a mix of basic and applied research.
The Cold War
During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off with a nuclear deterrence policy called mutually assured destruction (aptly named MAD.) But to fight a conventional war in Europe, Soviet forces had built a 3 to 1 advantage in tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers. In response the U.S. developed a new strategy in the late 1970’s to counter the Warsaw Pact. Instead of matching the U.S.S.R. tank for tank or solider to solider, the U.S. saw that it could change the game and take advantage of a lead we had that was getting longer every day – using our computer and chip technology to aggressively build a new generation of weapons that the Soviet Union could not.
At the heart of this “offset strategy” was “precision strike,” – building stealth aircraft to deliver precision guided munitions unseen by enemy radar, and designing intelligence and reconnaissance systems that would target for them. The offset strategy was smart weapons, smart sensors, and stealth using silicon chips, electronics and computers that only the U.S. could design and produce.
By the mid-1980’s the Soviet military was struggling to keep up with this “revolution in military affairs. The announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) further destabilized the Soviet Union.
The Gulf Wars
When I first started teaching customer development (searching, validating and executing a business model), one of my students pointed out that customer development was similar to the theory of a military strategist, John Boyd. In the 1960’s, Boyd, who was a fighter pilot, proposed that instead of executing a fixed plan, wars would be won by those who can Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (the OODA Loop.) After being ignored for decades, Boyd’s OODA Loop drove the U.S. war fighting strategy in both Gulf Wars. The OODA Loop was the Lean Startup philosophy before lean.
Iraq, Afghanistan and the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF)
In Afghanistan in 2002 U.S. soldiers were tasked to clear caves that the Taliban used to store equipment. Many of the caves still had Taliban fighters inside while others had been booby-trapped. To clear the caves soldiers threw grappling hooks inside then pulled the hooks out to catch trip-wires and explode bombs. But often this technique did not work and soldiers died. The Army realized they needed to do something more effective. They gave the problem to Colonel Bruce Jette, and 90 days and $750,000 later he had bypassed the existing Army acquisition system and bought existing robots from companies. Exponent provided the PackBot and the Marcbot and deployed them to the field.
From that day the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) was born.
The REF’s goal is to deliver technology solutions to front-line soldiers in days and weeks, instead of months and years either by using solutions from previous REF efforts or existing government- or commercial-off-the-shelf technologies purchased with a government credit card.
The REF had permission to shortcut the detailed 100+ page requirements documents used by the defense acquisition process. It developed a ten-line short form that listed the most important parts of the requirement. The REF also had its own budget, which it could use to acquire equipment.
Soon the REF was sending teams of civilian and military subject matter experts out into the field to discover what they needed. REF expanded its operations to include forward teams in Kuwait and Iraq to provide technology to fill capability gaps and to counter the highest priority threats.
By the end of 2007, the REF had delivered more than 550 types of equipment and more than 75,000 individual items. The average time from receiving a request from the field to delivering a solution to the soldiers was 111 days.
In 2010 Colonel Peter Newell took over the REF and turned its focus into what we would call a Lean Startup.
Newell insisted that REF started with a deep understanding of soldiers’ problems
before purchasing a proposed solution. Newell found that four problems accounted for two-thirds of REF requirements:
- defeating roadside bombs
- supporting soldiers on foot with communications and load carrying devices
- providing soldiers with timely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in combat
- supplying and protecting small isolated combat outposts
He came up with his version of the OODA loop to explain to people how REF should behave.
To get closer to his customers, Newell commissioned three mobile laboratories that were airlifted to forward operating bases. These labs included a Computer Numerical Control milling machine and 3-D printers for rapid prototyping.
Hacking For Defense (H4D)
When Colonel Peter Newell left the Army, he came to Silicon Valley at the urging of a friend and fellow retired Army Colonel, Joe Felter, a Stanford PhD who moved to Palo Alto and Stanford after a career in the Special Forces. Newell accepted Felter’s invitation to join a company he had originally established. BMNT does for the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community what the REF did for the U.S. Army – build teams that deliver solutions to complex problems, with access to the entire network of suppliers and partners that Newell and Felter developed throughout their careers.
To tap into the innovation of Silicon Valley, BMNT, in collaboration with Stanford’s Preventive Defense Project organized Hacking For Defense (H4D) – a series of hackathons – to help the Department of Defense do four things:
- Identify new ideas that will solve problems the military expects to see in the future
- Map those ideas to the technology that could be used to solve them
- Recruit the people who can make it happen
- Show the DoD how to engage Silicon Valley with challenging problems and build networks of people to solve them
BMNT‘s first hackathon, “Hacking the Supply Chain,” brought together diverse teams of technologists and users to provide solutions to the questions: How do you supply troops which can be sent on short-notice, for long periods to places where there are no existing bases or supplies? How might we create the most resilient and efficient supply chain possible for our forward-deployed land forces in 2025?
“Hacking the Supply Chain” is focused on:
- energy and power generation
- potable water and field expedient sewage systems
- advanced manufacturing and repair maintenance technologies
- training and readiness technologies
- command, control, computers, and communications technologies
In mid-April, the ideas generated at BMNT‘s first hackathon will be presented to a panel of experienced senior entrepreneurs, engineers, and military and government officials and then sent to the Department of Defense with specific recommendations on the technologies with potential to support them.
Ultimately Newell and Felter say they want to use BMNT to create an “insurgency” in Silicon Valley to get cutting-edge innovation into the organizations defending our country. (Click here for information on Hacking for Defense events.)
Hacking the Prime’s
In reality, what BMNT is trying to fix is the way the Department of Defense acquires radically new technology and ideas. While DARPA tries to fill that need, today the primary conduits for bringing new technology to the government are the prime contractors (e.g., Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, L3, General Dynamics, et al.) But most of these contractors focus on fulfilling existing technology needs that can be profitable.
If a startup wants to provide new technology to the Department of Defense (DoD), they have to sell through the prime contractors who own the relationships with the DoD. Most startups and innovative companies are unwilling to risk exposing their Intellectual Property and go through the paperwork of dealing with the government, so they choose not to pursue government ventures. In this way, the primes artificially restrict DoD’s technological funnel. (Palantir is the most visible Silicon Valley insurgent in this space.)
Today, incentives for bringing innovation into the government with speed and urgency are not aligned with the government acquisition, budgeting, and requirements process. As a result, the DoD fails to acquire truly innovative technologies (much less paradigm-changing technologies) in a timely fashion.
- In peacetime the U.S. military is an immovable and inflexible bureaucracy
- In wartime it can adapt and adopt organizational change with startling speed
- The Rapid Equipping Force operated with speed and urgency to deliver solutions to real customer problems
- BMNT and Hacking for Defense are trying to bring this same process to Silicon Valley
“Want to see the bin Laden compound?”
Tony Sanchez, director of special projects for a San Francisco tech company called Osterhout Design Group, holds up what looks like a place mat covered in zebra stripes. He’s standing in a Stanford University conference room, addressing a collection of people not usually seen in Silicon Valley: Some are undergraduates and technologists from area startups, but many are active-duty soldiers and veterans enrolled in the business school.
Sanchez hands out a set of smart glasses. When the people around the table put them on and look at the sheet, Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hide-out comes to life. It looks like something out of a 3-D video game. Turn the sheet, and the tan low-rise buildings rotate. Pull the sheet in, and the buildings get closer. Push it out, and they shrink away.
One of the soldiers takes a look. “Can you imagine?” he asks. “Our snipers would love that.”
About 30 people are participating in the workshop, part of a Pentagon project called Hacking for Defense that’s searching for new ways for the military to identify promising Silicon Valley technologies. During the Cold War, defense money funded much of Northern California’s nascent tech industry, and the military worked closely with universities and companies to develop electronics, microwave devices, semiconductors, and spy satellites. But the military did not stay connected to the venture capital–fueled tech industry that emerged in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Until recently, the Pentagon didn’t see this as a liability: The United States enjoyed unmatched technological superiority on the battlefield. That advantage, though, is now dissipating. China and Russia have invested heavily in new systems. ISIS is using hobby-style drones for reconnaissance. Rebels in Syria are using iPads to aim mortars. Equipment like this was once prohibitively expensive. Now you can get a lot of what you need off the shelf.
Running the workshop is a compact man who stands ramrod straight and speaks in a gravelly voice. Not so long ago, Peter Newell was a colonel in the Army, commanding thousands of troops in Iraq. In 2013, after retiring from the service, he moved to Palo Alto to start a consulting firm, BMNT Partners, whose primary mission is to get the military and the tech community working together. A research initiative at the Pentagon called Technology Domain Awareness asked Newell to create the Hacking for Defense project.
Sanchez pulls out a small cardboard box. He shows how sensors in the glasses could read the box’s contents — the same way X-rays can peer into your body — while an app converts that data into a 3-D display on the lenses. The computing is done in a processor about an inch wide embedded along the top of the lenses that has as much power as a tablet computer. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity allow the devices to communicate with other glasses nearby.
The group discusses how soldiers could use the device in combat. A sensor on a rifle could track the reloading of magazines and feed that information to an app in the glasses, letting a soldier know how much ammunition he’s used. An accelerometer could measure the force of an IED blast to assess whether a soldier’s brain has been injured. Newell points out that if an entire squad or platoon was wearing the glasses, the team leader could use an app to figure out how to arrange his people. Another app could help a forward observer call in artillery. All of this, Newell says, would “remove that cognitive load from the guy doing calculations in his head.”
As much as Defense Department officials say they want better access to commercial technology, the way the Pentagon functions often makes this impossible. The military has spent decades configuring itself to work with defense contractors to build complicated systems that take years to produce, like fighter jets and aircraft carriers. With its cumbersome rules and processes, the Department of Defense is not set up to race alongside small, agile companies.
The Pentagon is beginning to realize it must operate differently. Some of the most advanced work in computing, big data, cybersecurity, energy, robotics, and space — all areas the military draws on — is being done by tech companies, not traditional defense contractors. Last year, the Pentagon kicked off a large-scale effort called the Defense Innovation Initiative. In April, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter traveled to Palo Alto to announce that the department was establishing an office in Silicon Valley.
ON THE SURFACE, Peter Newell, who is 53, does not seem like an obvious candidate to grasp Silicon Valley. An Army brat who enlisted in the National Guard before commissioning as an officer, Newell spent 32 years in the service. Early tours took him to Panama and Kosovo. He was on duty in the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center on September 11. During the battle for Fallujah in Iraq, he commanded a battalion, earning a Silver Star. In 2009, he was responsible for a swath of southern Iraq, tasked with intercepting fighters, weapons, and cash being smuggled in from Iran through marshes along the border.
Soon after that tour, the Army put Newell in charge of a unit called the Rapid Equipping Force. The unit had been created in the early days of the Afghanistan War. After senior officers saw a photograph of a soldier searching a cave for enemy fighters, some wondered why the military was putting lives at risk when it could send in robots. The technology existed, but the problem was bureaucratic. The military didn’t have a system in place to respond to unexpected needs on the fly; it can easily take more than a decade to research and develop a piece of equipment. The Rapid Equipping Force was created to get new gear to the field quickly.
Newell had never heard of it. The organization was only seven years old and not widely known. But once he learned what it was, he got angry. Rapid Equipping Force teams had been in Iraq when Newell was there. The reason he was angry was that they had never approached him. “I’m working in a swamp,” he says. “I needed motorcycles, ATVs, and canoes.” Instead he was given a Navy unit with boats only suitable for rivers. If he had known about the Rapid Equipping Force, he might have gotten the equipment he needed. Lives almost certainly would have been saved. “To me, that’s not forgivable,” Newell says.
When I visit Newell at BMNT’s offices in Palo Alto, he tells me that soon after taking over the Rapid Equipping Force, he headed to Bagram and Kandahar. Iraq was winding down, but Afghanistan was heating up again. Newell met with commanders to find out what they needed. He gets up from the conference table and walks over to a bookcase. BMNT is located on California Avenue, one of Palo Alto’s many tech corridors, and its layout could pass for that of any of the area’s startups. It has an open floor plan and lots of white boards. But there are some notable differences. Most of BMNT’s staffers are veterans, and the walls are covered with pictures of them wearing fatigues and standing in Afghan fields or sitting in the back of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. In the entryway, an American flag sits in a modest picture frame — “a very public reminder,” Newell says, of the staffers’ desire to “continue to work for the good of our country.”
Newell grabs a picture from the bookcase and sets it in front of me. A soldier with a remote control is standing next to a Bobcat excavator, the kind you see on a construction site. The shovel has been replaced with a metal arm bearing five thick wheels. The Taliban, Newell explains, targeted soldiers on foot. IEDs were ripping them apart. Newell returned to the States and started hunting for some way to protect them. He discovered that a company in Britain had developed a remote-control system for Bobcats (“They used it in Fukushima”) and that an Army lab was developing small mine rollers that triggered and absorbed explosions. The Rapid Equipping Force combined the devices and created a vehicle it called the Minotaur, which could now clear a path for the soldiers. Nine months later, the machines started arriving in Afghanistan.
Newell headed the Rapid Equipping Force for three years. At one point, he came out to Stanford to consult with a research fellow about robotics. Insurgents were stashing supplies in Afghanistan’s extensive aqueduct systems. The military wanted to inspect them remotely. Newell’s host was Joe Felter, a former Special Forces officer who worked at the university’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Felter had done a tour in Afghanistan focusing on counterinsurgency, so when he heard about Newell’s aqueduct problem, he understood it immediately. Felter suggested they head off campus and take a “garage crawl” through startups in the area. “What I found running around to these places,” Newell says, “was that there were exceptional capabilities out here and great ideas that I had no access to.”
When Newell first joined the Rapid Equipping Force, one of the things he sought to understand was why the issue of foot soldiers being blown up had never registered with the unit, even though reports had been coming in for months. “I asked them, ‘How did you miss this?’” Newell says. The organization saw its job as scouting for technologies. Newell thought that, instead, it should look for problems and then figure out how to crack them. “That set me on a two-year tantrum,” he says, to change the mentality of the organization.
Although a colonel, Newell reported straight to a four-star general. This gave him the freedom to try new approaches. He sent staff to business courses at MIT and then hired one of the instructors, Steven Spear, to find ways to accelerate the unit’s operations.
Toward the end of Newell’s term at the Rapid Equipping Force, he faced a decision: stay in the Army or retire? One night at San Francisco International Airport, as Newell prepared to return east, Felter suggested he move to California and continue what he had done with the Rapid Equipping Force, only now in the private sector. Going off on his own would be a risk — defense contractors are usually the employer of choice for retiring colonels — but Newell could see how it might work. “I had to convince myself I could do it,” he says.
BMNT Partners was formally inaugurated in early 2014. Felter and a former Marine and recent Stanford graduate named William Treseder joined as partners. (“BMNT” is military shorthand for “before morning nautical twilight,” the period before the sun rises but after light has pierced the darkness. For an army, this has historically been the best time to attack and, conversely, the most dangerous time to be on defense.) As with many startups, they began with little more than an idea and figured out how it would work as they went along. They’ve helped U.S. forces in Korea research how to blast through concrete doors in tunnels. They’ve taught innovation practices to the Marine Corps and the Pacific Fleet. They’ve facilitated design sessions for Special Operations Command on how to power an “Iron Man” suit. And they’ve aided early-stage startups in finding government funding. One thing that hasn’t changed is their core mission. “We’re trying to get better technology to our military faster,” Felter says.
LAST YEAR, the Pentagon put out a call for papers on which emerging technologies might have the greatest utility in the next couple of decades. This is not unusual. The Pentagon frequently asks private industry for advice. Defense contractors, hoping to snag lucrative contracts, are happy to put in the hours drafting white papers. This time, though, the Pentagon specifically said it wanted to hear from companies outside its “traditional orbit.” It’s not clear what kind of response the department received from the tech world; the Pentagon says it didn’t track submissions by company type. The deadline for submissions was extended twice, however, and a delegation flew to California to see how it could engage Silicon Valley.
Three years ago, while still at the Rapid Equipping Force, Newell met with an engineer at Google who was researching energy solutions for those off the grid. Outposts in Afghanistan ran on generators. Tons of fuel had to be trucked in through hostile territory, making resupply a life-and-death operation. Newell asked the engineer how much it would cost to have Google research the Army’s project. The engineer answered by drawing a giant circle on a white board. “That’s my budget,” he told Newell. Then he put a much smaller circle inside it. “That’s your budget,” he said. “I’m not interested in your money. I’m interested in your problem.”
“That’s when I learned about the fallacy of the Pentagon’s model when it comes to Silicon Valley,” Newell says. Defense companies hire themselves out. Tech companies don’t. They look for a problem that a lot of people have, develop a product that solves the problem, and then take it to market. “What the Google guy was telling me was: Your role in this ecosystem is to deliver problems,” Newell says. Earlier this year, when the forces in Korea asked BMNT to help with the tunnels, Newell asked that a lead engineer be sent to the States. When he arrived, Newell brought him to various startups and let the conversations flow.
The Defense Department’s equipping systems were designed for an era when it was a lot easier to predict needs 20 to 30 years in advance. (The Pentagon’s research arm, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, focuses on long-term and conceptual challenges.) But today it’s impossible to know all the threats the U.S. will face in three decades or which technologies will have the greatest impact. After all, 15 years ago, who would have predicted that social media would give terrorists the ability to communicate and issue orders?
In July, the Brookings Institution came out with a report called There’s No App for That, which details the difficulties that tech companies face when trying to sell to the military — barriers it called “formidable, if not prohibitive.” Between laws on what the Pentagon can and cannot do with taxpayer money and in-house rules aimed at preventing fraud and error, the military’s acquisition system is opaque and confusing. “The DOD,” according to the report, “is simply perceived as a bad customer.”
Newell often emphasizes that BMNT’s mission is about more than just getting the latest gear to the military. He wants the Pentagon to internalize Silicon Valley’s approach to developing new products. “The way wars are fought now,” he says, “it does not matter how good the tech is that you show up to the fight with. It matters how fast you can change. We have to be in a position to recognize an emerging problem much faster and to deliver that problem into the hands of people who can actually combine the right technologies to solve it.”
For a long time, the Pentagon monopolized most of the advanced technological development, either by producing it in its own labs and in government-funded academic research centers or by contracting out to defense companies. Developing tech was expensive, and the Pentagon had the biggest purse. But as costs plummeted, the private sector exploded. Now it’s places like Silicon Valley — and its counterparts in China, Europe, and South Asia — that set the pace. New tools and devices are emerging so rapidly, the Brookings report said, that sometimes, by the time the military gets the equipment it ordered through traditional channels, it’s already out of date. “The cycle must be broken,” the report concluded, “lest we end up offsetting tomorrow’s threat with yesterday’s technology.”
That the Pentagon is opening a new Silicon Valley office is an acknowledgment that commercial tech is now ascendant. The new outpost is called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a clunky government name meant to signify that the office is a work in progress. The tech world’s response has mostly been guarded, to the extent that the office has registered at all.
“In Silicon Valley, so many things are based on relationships and understanding the ecosystem,” one observer told me. “When you’re in the military, you’re by definition transient. Folks rotate through. To have long-term success, they’re going to need some people with intimate knowledge of the terrain, who have those relationships — or it could be a flash in the pan, a good idea that didn’t quite have the legs to make it.”
It’s hard to find a more natural candidate to work with the military than Ralph Osterhout, the 69-year-old founder of Osterhout Design Group whom the website Gizmodo once referred to as a “real-life Q” — James Bond’s gadget wizard. He developed high-tech scuba gear in his 20s and later pioneered microelectronics in toys. In the 1980s, he co-created the night-vision goggles used in the Gulf War. About six years ago, he began developing smart glasses designed for the military — the same ones that were demonstrated at the Hacking for Defense workshop. Processors were getting smaller, and tablets were taking off. Osterhout realized that for a soldier in combat, the best place for an app is in front of his face.
The firm’s offices are tucked into San Francisco’s South of Market district, the heart of the city’s tech community. At his desk, Osterhout wants to show me all the things the glasses could do and starts whipping through one slide after another. Soldiers are in a city, facing off against enemy fighters in a far building. Orange and blue lines trace the paths of the bullets. “Remember The Matrix?” he asks. “You saw the bullet paths in slow motion. Imagine you actually can. You see the contrail of the bullet moving air molecules out of its path.” Another slide shows a team of soldiers moving toward bombed-out buildings. A small hand-launched helicopter — think a Pringles can with a rotor — hovers above them and tracks the enemy, transmitting information to and from the soldiers’ glasses, which, among other things, allow commanders to follow the battle through the troops’ eyes.
The commander of the Pacific Fleet praised the devices at an industry conference last year. Various defense labs and units were testing the glasses until 2011, when Congress instituted across-the-board budget cuts. “Ever since, nothing has happened,” Osterhout tells me. The Brookings report talked about how the Pentagon’s unreliability deters commercial tech companies from working with the department. “There was always one more meeting, and the meetings just never went anywhere,” it quoted one tech executive as saying. Osterhout is moving ahead with his commercial clientele. Hospitals are exploring how the device could cut the need for monitors in operating rooms. Builders want to use the glasses to conduct augmented walk-throughs on construction sites. “I can’t afford to chase the DOD as a principal customer,” Osterhout says. “There is simply no incentive in the DOD to go fast.”
ON AUGUST 28, Secretary of Defense Carter returned to Silicon Valley. At an event hosted on the grounds of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Carter told several hundred military, political, and tech leaders that the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental — or “my new startup,” as he called it — had opened for business. It was occupying space in an Army building across the street. When he’d arrived in April, Carter had been the first sitting secretary of defense to visit Silicon Valley in almost 20 years. Now he was back for the second time in just four months. One of his core goals, he said, is “renewing the ties, the bonds of trust between our national security endeavor at the Pentagon and our wonderful, innovative, open technology community.”
Taking four months to get a new project off the ground is swift for the federal government, but it’s slow in the tech world. The office’s funding is modest: $1.75 million for the first year and $5 million for subsequent ones. That’s a windfall for an early-stage startup but minuscule for the Defense Department, whose budget exceeds half a trillion dollars. The former head of a premier Air Force research lab is in charge of the project; a Navy SEAL with an MBA from Harvard is his deputy. The office will have 12 employees — “folks with entrepreneurial backgrounds and prior startup experience,” according to a senior Pentagon official.
The official says the office will act as a resource for entrepreneurs “to help point them to where they could make a difference in helping us solve national security problems.” This framing, though, makes one wonder how much the Pentagon still has to learn about Silicon Valley. Unlike defense contractors, tech entrepreneurs aren’t interested in “helping” the Pentagon do anything. They want to build products. If the military wants to buy them, all the better. To be fair, it’s probably too much to expect the Pentagon to transform its mind-set overnight. “If you look at how the DOD historically changes, it’s through a series of ‘Oh shit’ moments,” says Adam Jay Harrison, a research fellow at the National Defense University. “Pearl Harbor, Korea, the hostages in Iran.”
Carter likely knows this. A physicist who has spent his career going back and forth between academia and the Defense Department, he understands the Pentagon’s constraints. He also has long-standing ties to Stanford and understands Silicon Valley. Carter was in charge of procurement when vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan were being blown up by IEDs. In early 2014, he wrote an article in Foreign Affairs about how bureaucratic inertia prevented the Pentagon from addressing the issue immediately. “Too many lives were lost,” Carter wrote, “because the Pentagon failed to keep up with a changing battlefield. Never again should it make the same mistake.”
Newell has been following the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental since its inception. He watched a livestream of the April announcement at his office. At Moffett Field, he had a seat in the front row. Pentagon leaders have asked him for advice. The announcement of a Silicon Valley office was an important signal from the top, he says. But entrenched forces inside the Pentagon are not to be underestimated. Newell also worries the unit may find itself overwhelmed. Startups usually begin small and quiet. Low expectations give them the freedom to stumble about until they figure out what they can accomplish. The public nature of the launch has put the office under a spotlight. “Everybody thinks they’re going to come in with a massive budget and do a bunch of things,” Newell says.
For his part, Newell has started to think about how to get the next generation of soldiers and techies to collaborate. Steve Blank, a father of the lean startup movement and a Stanford instructor, has created a Hacking for Defense class to be offered next winter. Military units will provide real-world problems, and graduate students in the business, engineering, and policy schools will work with soldiers, sailors, and other active-duty troops to solve them. Newell will be helping to design and teach the course.
E.B. BOYD is a San Francisco–based writer whose work has appeared in Fast Company, Elle, Businessweek, and San Francisco, among other publications.
April 23, 2015
The Pentagon plans to open its first office in Silicon Valley and provide venture capital in an effort to tap commercial technology that can be used to develop more advanced weapons and intelligence systems.
Pentagon officials said the twin moves are part of a broader effort by the defense department to field technology more quickly and cheaply amid concerns that potential adversaries such as China are closing the gap or surpassing U.S. capabilities.
However, the Pentagon’s push faces resistance from technology companies and the venture-capital community, which has long been wary of becoming ensnared in the department’s bureaucracy and uncertain budget outlook.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter is scheduled to unveil the plans in a speech at Stanford University on Thursday that will also discuss a new Pentagon strategy for cyberwarfare. The three-day visit to Silicon Valley will include meetings with technology executives such as Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, as well as a venture-capital round table hosted by Andreessen Horowitz, according to a senior Pentagon official.
Hundreds of firms ranging from auto makers to banks and consumer product firms have set up offices in the Bay Area in an effort to boost their access to the best technology.
“The only folks that don’t have that presence are the government,” said Peter Newell, a former Army procurement officer who’s now managing partner at BMNT Partners, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture-capital firm that is one of the few in the Bay Area focused on defense work. “I’m surprised it’s taken them so long to have this epiphany.”
The Pentagon’s planned office in Moffett Field is expected to be up and running in a month, with around 15 staffers drawn from active-duty military and reservists. The Department of Homeland Security also plans an office in the area, it said this week, and Mr. Newell said two other government agencies had talked with him about similar moves.
The Defense Department had a significant role in Silicon Valley’s emergence as a global technology center during the 1970s, funding advances in microprocessing that were used to build precision weapons, and then applied to develop mass-market computing.
Now, the department is turning to commercial firms for advancements in 3-D printing, robotics, and using big data to mine intelligence.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, told reporters last week that he’s focused on attracting bids from companies that currently don’t vie for government work. He said the department needs to do a better at accessing and using commercial technologies. “Our potential adversaries are already doing so,” he said.
With many venture-capital firms avoiding investments in firms tied to government business, Mr. Carter will announce plans for the Defense Department to create its own funding vehicle.
The department plans to use In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital firm set up by the U.S. intelligence agencies in 1999, as the conduit. It will provide a small amount of seed capital during a one-year pilot program with the firm, whose past investments have included Keyhole Inc., which later provided the core technology for Google Earth.
The Pentagon has toyed in the past with small-scale venture capital initiatives. The Army set up OnPoint Technologies in 2002, but its investments were limited to energy-related technologies. The Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative was created in 2005 as a loose-knit advisory group of financiers looked to tap technology for the military, but budget pressures have since curtailed its activity.
People pushing the Pentagon to become more innovative said it needs to offer commercial firms a route to use technology for both commercial and military purposes, expanding the potential marketplace.
It may also require major change at the Pentagon. “There’s a ‘fear of failure’ culture,” said Ben Kohlmann, a former Navy aviator who set up the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. The network of junior officers generated and pushed innovative ideas, including the use of swarms of small drones to airlift supplies into hostile areas.
The pursuit of solutions to big problems—that might generate big financial returns for financial backers—is ingrained in the nation’s tech community. “It has to be done in the manner that the Valley does business,” Mr. Newell said of the Pentagon’s initiative. “They’re going to have to learn to expect some failures.”
While Mr. Kendall and other Pentagon leaders have pledged to reduce bureaucracy and trim other impediments such as ownership of intellectual property, there are concerns this could take too long to lure Silicon Valley.
“I don’t think they have a plan. It’s a structural problem [at the Pentagon],” said one executive with close ties to the department.
Write to Doug Cameron at email@example.com
Link to Wall Street Journal Article, http://www.wsj.com/articles/pentagon-to-open-silicon-valley-office-provide-venture-capital-1429761603