Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship Is A Game Changer For Allied Defense Innovation

The global impact of Hacking 4 Defense, the course that changed how national security problems are solved

Pete Newell

April 26, 2024

This is the story about how a single class – Hacking 4 Defense (H4D) at Stanford – launched a global defense innovation movement that continues to transform how real-world problems are solved.

H4D has changed the way the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security agencies address some of their hardest problems. At 3,000 alumni strong and now covering three continents  – the U.S., UK and Australia – it’s impacting the future of defense innovation and of the next generation of policymakers. More than 62 H4D teams have gone on to form dual-use companies post-course. Forty-one percent of H4D alums now work directly for the government or industries supporting the national security enterprise. Sister “Hacking 4” courses for Diplomacy, Impact, Oceans and more have cropped up.

H4D alum Claire Casalnova shares her experience in the course at a recent Congressional briefing.

Now the program is poised to grow further, with interest from other countries wanting to adopt the course.

With the largest-ever “H4” cohort kicking off earlier this semester (500 students in over 37 universities), I spoke with FedScoop podcast host Billy Mitchell to share the reason behind H4D’s steady expansion, and why, thanks to H4D, national security problem-solving will never be the same.

Nasty problems get swift solutions

Some national security problems seem to linger. Others feel too complex or mystifying to tackle. H4D thrives at addressing challenges that have become a thorn in the side of an agency. The course takes everything from space problems for the Space Systems Command to energy challenges for the State Department, and from advanced manufacturing issues to food storage logistics, and puts them in the hands of our best and brightest students. Teams take that problem as if it's their single-focus job to solve it. They conduct vast amounts of customer discovery and come back with viable solutions … all in just the span of a semester. 

Since H4D’s birth, we’ve rapidly grown the program to solve a myriad of real-world problems. We've gone from focusing solely on defense to the intelligence challenges to problems from the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, as well as problems related to health and climate. We’ve found the process lends itself to addressing both policy and tech problems. This semester, we're looking at everything from large language models to help people better understand authorities and policies to hardware problems like designing necessary tools or machinery.  

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

Students make real, lasting impact 

H4D is unlike any other course a student will ever take. The course connects the classroom to real-world government problems and gives students the opportunity to solve them using disciplined, proven problem-solving methodology.  

As one Stanford student said, “This is the only course in my academic career that has allowed me to use everything I had learned at school to work on a real problem with real people, that gave me real experience that’s leading me towards the type of job I want to have.” 

Unlike other college classes, there are no lectures. We push students out of the room and into this entrepreneurship journey. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and it’s real-life, just like building a company is. The experience gained is so transformative that students go on to work for the government or start their own companies that offer dual-use solutions.

Growing at home and abroad

It never ceases to amaze me that the people sitting in the room when we founded this program are all still here. Course co-creators Steve Blank and Joe Felter and many of the early instructors at Stanford and beyond are still teaching the classes because they see that what they’re doing matters. The defense partners who joined us early on to provide problems are still providing problems because they’ve reaped the benefits of fresh innovation. Now as we scale up, the reality is this: people want to be a part of H4D. And then they want to stay a part of H4D. 

Because getting the government more involved with energetic, creative students resonates universally, we’re increasingly seeing interest in deepening the impact of the course. For example, for the past couple of years, we've been sourcing common problems for our allies, including a combined U.S. Navy and UK Royal Navy problem, jointly being worked by universities in the UK and the U.S. 

In addition, other allied nations are paying attention – we are beginning to grow beyond the UK and Australia. Four universities in Sweden are planning to launch “Hacking 4” programs. Estonia, Taiwan and the Netherlands are interested in launching their own programs as well. Put simply, the “Hacking 4 Defense” concept makes sense, and that translates to growth to new universities, problem sponsors, and friendly nations.

Listen to our full conversation here or follow along at these timestamps below:

5:15: What is Hacking 4 Defense?

7:27: What constitutes a defense problem and where does it come from?

11:55: The growth of academic-to-government solutions

15:53: Flipping the classroom on its head

17:20: The pathway to a pivot: what student teams discover about their problems

19:13: Success of the program, leading students toward public sector careers  

20:19: Dedicated to the mission – why those involved in H4D stay with the program

23:17: What to look for in this next H4D cohort

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