Unleashing The Power Of Innovation To Make The World A Better Place

In briefing to Congress, Hacking for Defense® alums share journeys solving real-world problems for the U.S. government

Alex Gallo

May 18, 2023

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles looking at the progress of the Hacking for X series of academic classes that are helping change the way national security innovation happens. 

The impact of the national academic program Hacking for Defense and its sister course, Hacking for Homeland Security, were on display April 20, showing how these classes are helping to address critical national security challenges while providing a new platform for national service. Several past students briefed members of Congress and their staffs about how the program has influenced their view of the government’s work and helped reshape their career paths.

“What started as a different way of engaging Silicon Valley in the defense conversation is now recognized as a principal means of connecting smart young people with important national problems. The benefits are twofold: helping young people gain access to real problems in a way that traditional college courses cannot and giving the government ready access to students and young people who are impassioned about solving America’s biggest challenges,” explained BMNT CEO Peter Newell, who co-created the classes.

These courses help address national security issues at startup speed, Representatives on hand for the presentations acknowledged. 

Said House Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the HASC: “I’m thrilled that we have young people really interested in working with the Defense Department in this very important area of technology. We have a lot of work to do, to try to get the Defense Department to adapt, to be able to use the capabilities that are emerging.”

Rogers’ remarks followed presentations by Stanford and Rochester Institute of Technology H4 student alumni sharing their class experiences and how the course gave them new tools and perspective on what it takes to address real-world challenges.

The first of three teams to present took Hacking 4 Defense at Stanford University and has since formed a dual-use startup called Agrippa. Their problem was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, which needed new operational concepts to incorporate emerging technologies to successfully compete and determine aggression in the Pacific. The team created a concept for an unmanned logistics vessel to better decentralize maritime logistics in the Indo-Pacific theater. They are now working to prototype the solution. The team – David Hoyt, Kyle Duchynski, William Healzer and Jonathan Deemer – said the class was “transformational.”

Said Deemer: “This class enabled our careers to move toward a defense-facing, service-facing orientation… That exposure really helped me solidify my desire to serve in uniform and it also opened me to the Defense ecosystem that is opaque and vague from outside.”

From left to right, RIT students Justin Kennedy, Ross Clarke, Karan Tejwani, and Tanishq Borse, discuss heir experience taking Hacking for Homeland Security. Their teammate, Matt Uzelac, is in the back of the group.

The second team presenting was made up of graduate and undergraduate students from RIT, who took Hacking for Homeland Security. They were Ross Clarke, Matt Uzelac, Justin Kennedy, Tanishq Borse and Karan Tejwani. CISA served as their problem sponsor. They addressed cybersecurity and telecommunications issues on 911 calls, and helped improve welfare for emergency call responders. As was the case for Agrippa, the team said the class will have a lasting impact on them. 

“This was obviously not a traditional class. The problem solving solutions that we're used to are very technical and very one way. And this class really turned that on its head. So being able to look at something and say, Okay, who is actually being affected by this problem? And what are the pain points and how can we relieve them? And if we can't relieve them, who can? And how can they do that? Being able to identify that is something that really helped us but also it's fantastic to be able to talk one-on-one and get face-to-face time with people who are boots on the ground and be able to come up with a solution,” said Uzelac. 

Claire Casalnova, a former H4D student from RIT who now works at CISA, shared her experience helping to solve satellite imagery challenges for her original program sponsor, the National Geospatial Agency. In doing their discovery, her team determined that satellite imagery analysis is a wonderful tool for weather analysis. They wound up coming up with a way to predict natural disasters for organizations such as NOAA and FEMA.

Claire is making good use of the skills she developed in the class by creating compelling cases to solve problems through data-driven decision-making. 

“As a federal employee now working at CISA, I found the skills that I learned in this course to be invaluable in my day-to-day job. As a cloud analyst and R&D developer, I have to pitch projects that I'm working on to my senior leadership. The class taught us how to hammer home important points when briefing senior leaders, and this makes me more effective in my job,” she said.

H4D alum Claire Casalnova shares her experience in the class at the Congressional briefing.

Hacking for Defense is the flagship class of the “Hacking for” series of courses. Started in 2016 at Stanford, it aims to engage students with the government in a different way while teaching them how to use modern entrepreneurial tools and techniques to address real-world problems quickly. The “Hacking for” courses are administered by the Common Mission Project, the non-profit partner of innovation company BMNT. Today, it includes courses such as Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for Homeland Security, Hacking for Oceans, and Hacking for Impact. More than 3,000 students at 60+ universities have taken the H4D courses, helping to create a national security innovation pipeline in the process. They have addressed more than 850 national security and intelligence community challenges. Fifty-three teams have formed their own dual-use ventures as a result of the course, and 75 percent of the participants changed their opinions about working with the DoD after their experience.  

“The thing that I am most excited about is the problem solving approach that H4D brings because this is where the Pentagon really struggles. So much of the future of our ability to meet our deterrence national security needs is dependent on innovation and technology. We need smart people working on specific problems. The Pentagon is all about process and requirements. They don't have a problem-solving mentality. We can push the Pentagon to see it that way," HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith said.

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