Can this Stanford Professor Turn the Pentagon into a Lean Startup?

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.