Hacking 4 Defense Inspires Students To Service

Inspired by their experience with this class, 4 Stanford students left other job prospects behind to serve the nation

Alex Gallo

July 13, 2023

Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at the latest progress of the Hacking for X series of academic classes. Find earlier articles here.

By Alex Gallo 

When four Stanford graduate and undergraduate students applied to take Hacking 4 Defense in 2021, they didn’t expect it would change the trajectory of their lives. 

H4D is one of Stanford’s landmark classes, teaching our nation’s best and brightest students how to address critical national security issues at startup speed by working on unsolved problems sponsored by government agencies.

Entering H4D, these four students had successful prospects ahead of them – a Phd program, a position in a top-tier investment fund, and lucrative job offers. Yet, because of their experience in H4D, they cast those options aside.

Sparked by an inspiring experience and gripped by a sense of duty as a result of H4D, the team chose lifelong service to the nation.

Today, the H4D student team – William Healzer, Kyle Duchynski, Jonathan Deemer, and David Hoyt – is at the forefront of rebuilding and revolutionizing the American maritime industry through their dual-use technology startup, Agrippa.  

Team Agrippa discusses their experience in the Hacking for Defense class at a recent Congressional briefing.

Making a difference from the classroom

The Agrippa team spoke about their H4D class experience recently during a visit to Capitol Hill, sharing with members of Congress the impact of H4D on their lives. 

The team’s problem sponsor, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), tasked Agrippa with developing new operational concepts to support integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. Entering the class, the team had little familiarity with the U.S. military and its planning processes, leaving the team with much to learn. “We really started from nothing, we’re just a bunch of scrappy guys that love tackling hard problems,” Duchynski said

After the first few interviews with service members, the team was eager to find a solution. “After the first week, we all looked at each other and knew we needed to rapidly understand how the national security enterprise fits together to crack this problem. Piecing together the problem was both the hardest and most engaging intellectual puzzle we had encountered in school—we were totally hooked!” Hoyt said. 

“The energy became so infectious,” Healzer said. “From that point on to today we’re up every morning eager to make a difference and do something we love.”

Balancing full class loads and jobs, the team devoted upwards of 60 hours a week to their work, reading over 50 books and setting a national H4D record by conducting 246 warfighter discovery interviews.

From hundreds of hand-built org charts and slides detailing the Department of Defense’s concept generation process and procurement pathways to thousands of pages of notes from conversations with sailors and marines, the team worked to make a difference from the classroom. 

Said Healzer: “We wanted to figure out how every stage of the technology development process worked, then every stage of the acquisition cycle. With no textbook to follow, we just talked to everyone we could across the government and worked long into the night excited about the latest new funding authority we’d found or connection we’d discovered.”

A seaworthy solution

Across their 246 discovery interviews, the team put a face to the stakeholders working the integrated deterrence problem, learning from the real-life experiences of strategists, warfighters, logisticians, and experts in the field.

Throughout this process, the Agrippa team gradually developed, then refined, an innovative operational concept for resupplying the Joint Force in contested environments. As the team continued briefing their concept to stakeholders across the Department of Defense, they were struck by the broad desire of warfighters and technologists alike to support student teams tackling these problems. Their work was met with great support and acclaim from across the Joint Force, including their U.S. Navy problem sponsor—ONR. Briefs them to not only share what they had learned with operators in the DoD, but also help to break down silos between different organizations across the concept and platform development cycle.

Getting outside the building

At the end of the class, the team was determined to get their work in the hands of operators across the Joint Force. The Agrippa team took this mission into their own hands, and cold-called dozens of senior leaders to set up out-briefs. They wound up coordinating a full week of briefings at six bases across southern California and Hawaii, briefing over 100 warfighters and senior leaders across the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force, highlighted by briefs at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and at Pearl Harbor to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. That trip was a defining moment for each student.

“We discovered how important it is to ‘get out of the building,’ meeting people in person and hearing feedback one-on-one on our concept,” said Deemer. The power of the dialogue between students and warfighters so central to H4D made an incredible impact on the students.

“For us, the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received on this trip solidified our decision to continue working on this project. We knew we could really contribute and fill a need,” said Deemer. 

These initial engagements proved invaluable in the team’s continued work, as the team continues to regularly engage senior leaders and stakeholders across the Indo-Pacific.

A life pivot for each team member 

Their decision to continue to work on their H4D problem was a milestone in each of their lives.  

“H4D really changed my perspective and what I wanted to do,” said Duchynski, who was completing his undergraduate degree and pivoted away from a full-time position at an investment firm. “That's what I figured I would be doing before signing up for this class,” he explained.  

The moment that stands out for him in that decision came after a briefing at the U.S. Pacific Fleet. A senior leader in the Navy approached the team to offer Agrippa a personal tour of Pearl Harbor. But it quickly became much more than just a visit to the base. Its powerful memorials and personal anecdotes from a three-decade long Navy career turned into the officer imploring the team to continue their work. Standing on the pier at the U.S.S. Utah Memorial where America’s last great power conflict in the Indo-Pacific began on Dec. 7th’s Day of Infamy, there was a moment that clicked for the team; “We knew we had to do this. There was no question about it,” said Duchynski.

The Pearl Harbor trip was equally transformative for Hoyt. “Coming out of Stanford's JD and MBA programs,” Hoyt said, “there were a lot of professional options for me to choose from. But after H4D, I knew U.S. national security is what I wanted to work on. I made two choices that defined my future: one was to do more work at Stanford by helping build The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation and the second was to stay with the team to help launch Agrippa and create what the warfighter needs to help deter conflict and bolster American dynamism in the maritime space.” 

Healzer planned to start a Ph.D program after finishing his undergraduate work, but H4D “opened a new avenue of opportunity to engage in national security in such a dynamic way and launch a startup doing what I love with an incredible team,” he said, adding: “We are working toward a vision of a bright new future for the American maritime space, and thanks to H4D we’re better equipped and inspired to make it a reality.”

Deemer didn’t come from a military family or background but pursued active-duty service in the Army National Guard following the course. “Through our H4D work, we've been able to brief people at the highest levels—from the Deputy Secretary of Defense to those on the frontlines of the challenge. That exposure helped me solidify my lifelong desire to serve in uniform.”

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