With more than 24 years of service as a Special Forces and Foreign Area Officer, Colonel Joe Felter made the decision to transition from the military in 2011. Joe lived in Palo Alto from 2002-2005 while completing his PhD at Stanford University and later returned as an Army War College Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution from 2008-2009. He deployed to Afghanistan following his fellowship in 2010-2011 while his family maintained their residence in Palo Alto. With his return and the decision to transition, it became clear that Palo Alto and Silicon Valley was home.
As part of his transition plan, Joe formally established BMNT in August 2011. Since arriving in Palo Alto in 2002, Joe developed an extensive network of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and academics that all shared a commitment to national defense and appreciation for supporting the needs of a nation at war. Drawing on this network, BMNT initially engaged in limited consulting and advisory work focusing on assisting local technology companies interested working with the US military.
In early 2012, Joe met Colonel Pete Newell, Director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) on Stanford campus after volunteering to help him engage with a number of Stanford faculty members as part of his professional outreach efforts. The REF is a unique organization within the military, tasked with finding technologies that can solve priority problems soldiers face on the battlefield and rapidly deploying them. For those in the private sector it is best described as the Army’s “venture capital arm.” Pete, is also unique- he was willing to break down walls and step on toes even among resistant General Officers to accomplish his mission- he was the ideal officer to lead this non-traditional unit. A decorated combat infantry commander, Pete was selected for the position 2 years earlier while in command of a brigade combat team (BCT) in Iraq. Significantly, Pete brought a problem-centric mindset to the organization, moving the organization away from deploying individual products and toward responding to soldier feedback. This fresh perspective ushered in an era of success for the organization, pushing problem solvers forward onto the battlefield and investing more than $1.4 billion in 3 years
From their very first meeting on Stanford campus, Joe and Pete bonded over a similar military background and realization that they share a common motivation –ensuring our warfighters are provided the very best technology to accomplish their mission. The stakes were high – soldiers were literally dying in the field as a result of the inefficiencies within the Department of Defense’s bureaucracy and procurement channels. Pete and the REF had a mandate to change this and he initiated a relentless and concerted effort mobilizing the entire organization to do so. As part of this effort, he made multiple trips to Silicon Valley to engage with the technology ecosystem and tapped Joe to introduce him to his network. Joe organized a number of engagements and “garage crawls” for Pete and exposed him to the potential within Silicon Valley to provide solutions to the intricate problems he prioritized. BMNT’s advisory and consulting efforts expanded and Joe brought on William Treseder, a Stanford graduate and Marine veteran and later Brendon Hart, also a Marine veteran with a degree from Dartmouth.
On one of Pete’s visits, while at a meeting in Mountain View with Google, he had an important epiphany. A senior Google executive drew a larger and smaller circle on a white board. Pointing to the larger circle, he told Pete, "That's our budget." The smaller circle represented the REF's budget. "We don't want your money; we want your problems." This reinforced to Pete what he already suspected- that the key to engaging Silicon Valley was not through government money, which is limited and difficult to access, but by challenging these entrepreneurs and visionaries with DoD and other government agencies’ problems. A seed was planted.
Word was out that Pete had decided to transition despite being groomed for even more senior positions in the military. He was already being heavily recruited by the large defense primes and had many attractive options post-retirement in the Washington DC area. Joe was impressed by Pete’s ability to inspire the leadership of start-up and established technology companies to support his mission at REF. He believed Pete could make a significant impact in closing the gap between DoD’s needs and Silicon Valley’s start-up culture. This, along with his uncompromising integrity and commitment to the cause, prompted Joe to take what he thought may be a long shot. At the end of another trip to the valley, Joe gave Pete a ride to the airport for a late night redeye flight back to Washington. Before boarding the flight he invited Pete to consider coming back to Silicon Valley at some point after the military and continue the work they had been involved with together since first meeting at Stanford nearly two years before.
With a passion for the entrepreneurial spirit of the Valley and a desire put it to use solving national security problems, Pete moved to Palo Alto with his family soon after retirement in 2013. He initially worked on innovation studies on behalf of the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DoE) as well as case study development for the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Within a year, Pete accepted Joe’s offer to join the team at BMNT as Managing Partner of BMNT Partners. With Pete at the helm, BMNT Partners soon expanded their consulting efforts into DoE and other government agencies.
Like any start-up in Silicon Valley the team at BMNT tested hypotheses, listened to and learned from customer feedback and pivoted into new roles all with an eye to the early inspiration of supporting the warfighter and making the world a safer place. Today the BMNT family of core capabilities includes the consulting capacity of BMNT Partners, an analytics capacity resident in BMNT Analytics and a capital partnership in BMNT Capital that manages our investment and equity efforts.
Photo courtesy: Brain L. Frank, California Sunday Magazine