Startups, International Partners And The Next Generation All Key To U.S. Future

How we can tap resources of talent, innovation and experience to advance the national interest.

Ellen Chang

May 16, 2023

Startups, international partners and the next generation of problem solvers hold vast untapped resources of talent, innovation and experience, and bring with them necessary solutions to our greatest national challenges. 

I explored these topics in a recent conversation with Andrea Ochoa and Sravya Kotamraju on The Burn Bag podcast’s collaboration with Girl Security, a workforce mentorship program designed to help young women pursue careers in National Security. We had a fun and lively discussion that I hope will encourage broader participation in the national security sector, with a special nod to deep tech and the possibilities within that space. Here’s what we discussed:

What is ‘deep tech’ and why it matters

There’s a lot of focus these days on “deep tech,” what it is and its national security implications. I explained to Andrea and Sravya that what is considered deep tech has morphed over the years. While initially, deep tech referenced space-related technologies, currently it is a classification of startups building products that have substantial scientific, technological or engineering challenges and risks. Swati Chaturvedi summarizes the field expertly here.

Deep technologies seem to be difficult to commercialize because they include hardware, tools that need to be engineered, material science and research. Many of these technologies are promising but have not yet been developed into a product. In addition, the convergence of different technology domains (new materials for hardware or the built environment, for example) provide new possibilities but also have technical risk. Conventionally, VCs address market and not technical risk. 

Over the last few years, however, as deep tech investing has become more mainstream, the popular identification of the category has grown beyond space tech to include advanced materials and manufacturing, food technologies, biotechnology, quantum computing, and photonics. 

All these areas intersect with national security, which is why it is such a pertinent effort in the government today along with a focus on drawing in investors and talent to the deep tech table, something we at H4XLabs, BMNT’s enterprise accelerator, are helping to do. 

Why we need to involve startups and scaleups in defense work 

Another focus of our work at H4XLabs is fostering the development of “dual-use” ventures. The term “dual use” is also nuanced. Some use the term to mean new companies that are defense-focused. Others see a dual-use startup as one that is commercializing a technology and developing a product that could have national security implications. H4XLabs tends to focus on the latter. We like to say we are commercially focused and mission aware, believing commercial markets move faster, thereby accelerating technology maturation. Agility and speed are what we need today.  

Small companies cannot solely focus on the DoD, because the government can be too difficult to work with, too big to engage, and it can take too long to become profitable. 

While some dual-use companies provide tangible products, many offer innovations in less obvious ways, including process upgrades, cost reductions, lien management. Our culture often conflates innovation with technology, but innovation reaches far beyond that.

It will take work by both industry and government to involve more startups as dual-use. The government needs to share its problems, engage companies for solutions, and acknowledge that it can simply buy solutions from the outside without procuring them. Companies need to be willing to build the relationships and to get involved in government work.

Most importantly, though, both need to start having actual conversations with each other.

How we’re embracing international cooperation

Another rich yet underutilized defense resource is our vast-reaching network of friendly nations. We need to disengage ourselves from the narrative that America has to build everything at home and bring it with us to the fight, and instead leverage the talents, networks, and geographical locations of our allies. Through our program, Hacking 4 Allies, we work closely with multiple allies to enhance partnerships and solve shared problems. 

We have seen firsthand the robotics capabilities in Japan, semiconductors coming from Taiwan, space technologies emerging from Australia, and robust maritime and arctic capabilities coming from Norway, and how these technologies can be used to make the world safer.

America hinders its own progress with rules, regulations and policies, but we can leverage the capabilities and capacities we don’t have, and rethink how to reduce the bureaucracy that prevents it. 

What students and young innovators can do to get involved

In the U.S., the need for quality scientists and engineers has never been greater, yet many are nearing retirement age. One of the most important things we can do is to inspire a new generation, along with women and minorities, to not only embrace science and engineering, but to do it with the national interest in mind– from educating investors about investing in these deep-tech companies, to engaging a new generation of students with real-world national security problems. Our country’s talent is our biggest asset. One does not have to be in the military to make a difference. 

One effort being driven by the Common Mission Project, nonprofit partner of BMNT, is Hacking 4 Defense, a national academic program that engages teams of university students in a new form of national service as they work to solve critical national security challenges at startup speed. 

The program - which has been offered at 60+ universities – brings young people to the national-service table, with some going on to work in the public sector and others working to build dual-use companies based on the work they’ve done in class. 

More details from our conversation in the full interview here or dive into our other conversation topics at the following time stamps.

7:49: My career trajectory in Defense 

10:39: How the innovation industry has evolved  

21:13: How companies can partner with the DoD

26:29: Private sector national security innovations

40:42: Areas of growth for Defense 

43:00: Ethical implications for private sector companies in national security 

46:10: Navigating risks in the changing national security landscape

50:19: The DoD doesn’t lack technology, it lacks process innovation

52:49: How to join the innovation insurgency  

54:48: The two most important skill sets needed today

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