How Startups Can Build Bridges And A ‘Defense Mindset’

It's traditionally been challenging for dual-use startups and scale-ups to work with the government, but that's changing

Heather J. Richman

October 18, 2023

Not every startup in America begins the innovation process thinking about how its big idea can protect the country, but we’re entering a time when perhaps every startup should. Yet for those companies contemplating how their ideas can support the free world, the hardest step can be in knowing where to go and who to talk with to put those ideas and innovations to work for national security. 

I spoke with Callye Keen on his podcast, Startup Defense, recently about inspiring a generation of entrepreneurs to think defensively, while enabling better cross-pollination among innovators, investors and the Federal Government. We also spoke about the various pathways emerging to spark important dialogues to solve big problems. 

Some points from our discussion below.  

National-Security minded startups

Where does mission-focus originate and how can more startups begin to envision their technology or product in a National Security context? Enabling easy access for innovators, startups and entrepreneurs to become dual-use companies that offer both commercial and national security benefits starts with incentivizing investors.

For a long time, investors didn't want their companies entertaining the idea of working with the government or the DoD because it took too long, there was no transparency and there were classification challenges. However, things are changing. There are now pathways to discourse and opportunities to collaborate. And with investors interested in dual-use startups, startups can start getting interested in dual-use options.

One way we at BMNT help do this is with the Defense Investor Network (DIN). The DIN was born out of an idea to create an alternative to the opaque government website, offering instead a network of trusted investors. We bring military and government insiders to engage in the network, defining the sorts of solutions they need. We launched ADIN (Australia) in 2022 and just launched the DIN UK in March, evidencing how valuable such networks are to innovators across the globe. 

Portals of entry to Defense

Once they offer dual-use solutions, companies can get in the door of working with the government by turning to organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), AFWERX, NavalX, and the Army Applications Lab (AAL). Here’s how they can help:

DIU created a Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) as a rapid contracting vehicle. They represent customers inside the DoD or Intelligence Community that have a challenge that can be communicated clearly. Details are on their website. Innovators can sign up to get their announcements on their various priorities and needs. 

The Air Force has done an incredible job putting together their innovation arm, AFWERX, sharing some of the problems they’re facing. Their mission website offers regular notices of opportunity, solicitations open for submissions, and specific topic pre-releases. This opens a direct dialogue like never before, sharing startup capabilities for testing. The result is that both parties can solve hard problems quickly. 

NavalX is changing the game for the Navy, developing Tech Bridges all over the country, and even beyond to allied nations, which serve as connected networks for enhancing collaboration among Naval Labs, industry, academia and other military branches. They have smart, qualified people running them who want to jump in and start building relationships with innovators. A new tech bridge opened in London and we're hoping to activate it in Australia as well. 

Army Applications Lab (AAL) was created in 2018 in conjunction with the Army Futures Command as a way to walk dual-use technologies across the Valley of Death and into the hands of ready Soldiers. The Lab focuses on those technologies that meet the requirements and priority objectives but still cannot advance to the prototyping, testing and fielding stages of a military supplier. In an effort to counter the government’s long and impeccable budget process, the AAL tests and refines business models that can scale across the Army.  

The new Office of Strategic Capital (OSC) at the Office of the Secretary of Defense is evolving to work closely with the Small Business Administration, and hopes to change the way America matches funding and leverages private capital. It plans to identify and prioritize promising critical technology areas for the DoD, then fund investments in those critical technology areas. To accomplish this, the OSC will partner with private capital providers and other federal agencies to employ investment vehicles that have proven successful in other United States government contexts. 

The changing face of war, the changing face of business

The many accelerators and bridges sprouting up across the public sector show us that DoD is changing as it faces new realities of war, technologies and politics. These new and emerging platforms exist to start conversations between the DoD and world-class talent. Discourse is beginning to take place between the unlikeliest of allies. American corporations are reaching across traditional barriers to offer experiential learning to technical DoD counterparts. For example, in the wake of cyber terrorism scares globally, BMNT helped connect the CISO of Visa to Chief Cyber Officers in the military to have a simple talk devoid of all pretense and egos. Providing those safe places to have meaningful discussions is what will enable our capabilities and sophistication to skyrocket. The result of that humble conversation sparked a retooling of how the Cyber command will pursue its cyber strategy.

The reality is, the DoD is starting to better understand how to best leverage the private sector and what policy and process changes need to be made to enable such collaboration. In turn, the DoD is increasingly turning to it for solutions. 

What startups will be ready to meet that call?  

Hear my entire conversation with Callye here.

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