Democratizing Innovation And Entrepreneurship For National Security

Helping future military innovators avoid wasting time solving a problem no one needs solved

Dr. Bull Holland

August 22, 2023

While opportunities to learn about innovation abound for students at America's leading universities, there is a different reality for men and women in uniform. Warfighters today don’t have the time or money to enroll in innovation classes, and classes that exist aren’t tailored specifically for national security innovation or entrepreneurship within the military. I’m trying to fix that, and spoke recently with Rob Robinson on his podcast, Defense Technology Talks, about my journey in bringing the first innovation training to service members. 

Origin of H4X Training

Having spent my career as a teacher in various capacities and as a retired Army Acquisition Officer, I’ve had the unique vantage point to witness disparities of innovation training between university students and Soldiers. While teaching a Lean Acquisition Innovation class for  Hacking 4 Defense to NC State University graduate students, it struck me how powerful these same lessons would be for Soldiers and the larger Defense structure that supports them. Hacking 4 Defense puts real-world national security problems into a classroom setting and empowers student teams to offer solutions using proven Silicon Valley methods.  

I love teaching the central concepts of entrepreneurship to eager students, but what I really want to do is change the public sector. Offering this level of education to active-duty Soldiers, who have first-hand knowledge of some of the most crippling challenges in the DoD, and giving them the opportunity to learn to innovate solutions just makes sense. In February, 2022, the leadership at BMNT and I began equipping Soldiers with the same set of tools and skills delivered to top-tier students in Hacking for Defense and its sister classes, known together as the Hacking4X  academic classes. The result was the birth of Hacking4X Training for military personnel, which started at North Carolina State University and is spreading to other universities across the country. 

Providing a platform for repetition

Military bureaucracy doesn’t lend itself to failing often as a way of learning, yet this is the No. 1 way Silicon Valley innovators succeed. Successful entrepreneurs learn and grow from multiple failures and through the repetition of trying potential solutions until finding success. Our classroom gives Soldiers a space to make mistakes, and gain the skills required to learn from those errors and approach the problem in a new way. 

2LT Robert Francis and 1LT Ryan Gamber from the 101st. Airborne Division give their final presentation for addressing dismounted power and energy challenges in a recent H4X Training class.  They are demonstrating the potential of an experimental technology that an turns an aluminum-based compound into hydrogen and that hydrogen into power.

We build our classes around the idea of giving students processes  to solve problems, like the Lean Startup methodology, then encouraging them to get out of the building to talk to people and apply what’s learned in the classroom. This kind of iterative engagement brings clarity and understanding to the problem-solving process and helps students change their perspectives on what “failure” means.

Our greatest effort goes into helping future military innovators best define a problem so that they don’t waste weeks, months or years solving a problem no one needs solved. The need to listen and take both positive, negative, and potentially harsh feedback is a crucial skill we develop in the class. Our goal is to reduce the number of “innovations” that exist only to be inventoried. If our students can come away from the class with a better way to solve their fellow Warfighters’ hardest problems, then we can know it was a good day.

Reaching more service members through growth

H4X Training is underway at NC State. More than 100 men and women in uniform have taken the class so far. Two colleges –  Cochise College in Arizona, and North Dakota State College of Sciences – will bring the program to their students in Spring 2024. Students include Soldiers, Airmen, as well as  members of U.S. Special Operations, and range from high-level Senior Executive Service leaders to junior enlisted specialists just starting their military careers. Ultimately, our mission is to help build an innovation culture for the public sector, beyond just the military, because lack of access to entrepreneurship training and education extends across the U.S. Government.

Listen to more of my conversation with Rob here, or skip to the timestamps below:

9:55 - The DoD is good at building programs, not good at building teams of innovators. 

13:47 - A good problem statement will save your life

14:46 - Engaging students around reducing inventory-overload

18:21 - Research is reconnaissance

20:25 - We don’t do anything by ourselves, H4X Training is a partnership

23:23 - US SOCOM innovation success story

Other posts