Reducing Cultural Barriers To Spark Growth In The American Defense Market

Lessons learned from a successful Hacking4Allies alum

Ellen Chang

June 14, 2023

Foreign startups and scaleups that want to do business in the U.S. defense ecosystem face a myriad of challenges: bureaucratic red tape, confusing processes, and opaque networks that are difficult to penetrate. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, however, revolves around the cultural differences in communicating a company’s value proposition to prospective customers and partners.

Hacking4Allies alum Dolphitech, a Norwegian company that innovated a non-destructive ultrasonic testing platform that adheres to the exterior of complex machines and effectively scans them for defects, had established itself in the U.S. market among commercial airlines. The company learned the importance of cultural considerations recently as it worked to gain a toehold working with the U.S. Department of Defense. 

This difference in culture may seem subtle on the surface, but for a company looking to work with the Pentagon, it is critical to its overall strategy. American investors expect a candid openness about technology benefits and capabilities. European companies tend to maintain a quiet humility that can be overlooked or drowned out in a competitive market. Getting this messaging right is one of the areas Hacking4Allies teams learn to do.

“We Europeans are quite cautious,” explains Jason Smith, Chief Commercial Officer for Dolphitech. “Americans are more forward, willing to push attention-grabbing messaging and call attention to specific capabilities. The best thing we received was the great coaching in Hacking4Allies, to help us present our messaging, develop an elevator pitch, visually brand our work, and ‘American-ize’ our platform to garner attention in the right places. We had thought we were good at these things, but the cohort taught us we weren’t good enough.” 

A demo of Dolphitech's Dolphicam2 inspection device.

Opening a path for international companies like Dolphitech to work with the Pentagon serves an important purpose, giving American defense access to unique capabilities to solve ongoing national security challenges. Dolphitech provides patented ultrasound technology to accurately inspect equipment such as helicopters, tanks, subs and aircraft for damages or defects in a fraction of the time of other similar capabilities on the market, giving inspectors a digital twin of the structure with full traceability to restore necessary components. According to Smith, for one Air Force aircraft, mapping damage in a routine inspection went from 2 hours to 15 minutes using Dolphitech’s system, enabling pilots, maintenance crews, and Defense manufacturers to return to mission critical functions at speed.

“In some instances, end users don’t always have an advanced understanding of the equipment they are charged with maintaining,” says Smith. “The Dolphitech system allows them to gain a full-picture view of the entire system, both in the areas functioning perfectly and those needing repairs or maintenance. This saves time, yes, but it can also save lives, as it ensures equipment is at the proper readiness and safety level for operation.” 

These benefits, however, aren’t as easy to convey as one might think to an entity such as the U.S. DoD.

Smith explained: “During the cohort we had some surprises in the differences in the way we had communicated and how Americans perceive things. For example, we realized quickly that there were some odd differences in terminology  - Non Destructive Testing (NDT) is used widely in Europe, but Non Destructive Inspection (NDI) is used widely in the USA -- and how colors are associated in presentations. For example, most of our materials had been designed using red, which is a very positive and powerful color in Norway. We learned that in America, red is associated with anger and that blue was a more appropriate visual for our efforts.”

 Hacking4Allies coaches also helped Smith and his company tighten their messaging to make it more compelling and effective. Their technical presentation deck went from 60 slides down to 6. They developed a 60-second elevator pitch, conducted workshops on how to communicate effectively and gained methods for passing along important details without speaking for long.

“We learned to think really hard about what we wanted to say in a way that is easily understood while being highly effective,” said Smith. Our coach Mark Peterson used great examples and made us really think about the messaging we want to get across in the first few sentences, to pull the customer into the conversation. 

The benefits for allied innovators like Dolphitech to join the Hacking4Allies accelerator are manifold. Smith shared that he brokered contacts not only within the manufacturing industry, but with military service end-users, which was an objective for his company from the start.

“Hacking4Allies is useful for all companies, whether more mature, or less. But getting into the program is just the beginning. You need to be committed. There is work to do, including homework most weeks, taking hard advice, and putting in the work to make big changes. To gain value from the program, be prepared to work hard, travel, meet new people and be very open,” Smith said. 

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