The DoD needed a strategic innovation capability, and a way to attract the best and brightest students. BMNT co-created Hacking for Defense, which sparked a movement in mission-driven entrepreneurship.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has a hard time attracting talent from the top universities. This is particularly true for students anticipating high-paying job offers who do not understand the unique challenges facing our military and the civilian workforce that supports national security every day. It’s even harder to get emerging technology companies to apply their time and expertise to defense problems given the government’s byzantine systems and glacial pace of change.
DoD needed a way to address both of these issues quickly, so in 2015, BMNT founders Pete Newell and Joe Felter teamed up with Stanford’s Steve Blank to combine their shared understanding of modern entrepreneurship and battlefield innovation to create Hacking for Defense® – commonly known as H4D. Teamed with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Defense Innovation Unit (DIUx) and Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA), the class was piloted at Stanford and has since been adopted internationally.
H4D is a for-credit academic course, a program of record with Congressional support, where teams of university students learn how to use proven innovation methods and tools to address real national security problems. BMNT first collects the problems from government sponsors like admirals, combat pilots, and policymakers. These are challenges such as how to safely evacuate special forces under fire, to how to detect and counter drones, protect IoT devices, develop innovative applications for artificial intelligence, and predict and prevent cyber threats.
Next, we “curate” these problems so the students can understand them, despite often being unfamiliar with defense missions and the people that carry them out. This process results in a problem that students can dig into with speed, creativity, and discipline.
The purpose of H4D is to get students engaged in national service and expose them to national problems that their traditional academic curriculum and career paths would not. They do this by interviewing hundreds of stakeholders about the problem, and potential solutions, in just 10 weeks. By putting students through such a rigorous and distinctive experience, H4D produces mission-driven entrepreneurs armed with the skills and experience to tackle the nation’s toughest problems after graduation.
“Giving the students a very challenging problem such as this one, you leverage outside expertise and fresh ideas on the path to solving the problem. The knowledge that was uncovered through the process was challenging to our assumptions in some ways, but reaffirming in others,” explained LTC Travis Trammell, problem sponsor for a William & Mary team working on the threat to democracy posed by foreign malign influence (FMI) on free and fair elections.
Today, H4D is offered at more than 60 universities in the U.S., UK, and Australia. BMNT also extended the “Hacking for” model from DoD to the Departments of State and Homeland Security, and to programs for oceans, municipalities, social impact, justice, and manufacturing. This is due in no small part to strong collaborations with organizations like the Common Mission Project, NSIN and the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.
The Impact – A Movement in Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship
H4D is a strategic innovation capability for DoD. To date, more than 3,300 students have taken the course, addressing more than 900 defense problems.
Many alums are choosing new public sector career paths as a result of their experience in the class.
“H4D really changed my perspective and what I wanted to do,” said Kyle Duchynski, who was completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford when he took H4D in 2021. The class experience inspired him and his teammates to form a company, Agrippa, to help deter conflict and bolster American dynamism in the maritime space, instead of going with his original career plan of working at an investment firm. “That's what I figured I would be doing before signing up for this class,” he said.
For Claire Casalnova, an H4D alum from Rochester Institute of Technology, the course gave her important skills for thriving in her job at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). At RIT, where Claire pursued a BS/MS in Computer Science and Computing Security, she took H4D in 2021 while working as an intern at CISA.
“Taking H4D allowed me to converse with a number of individuals in government through the beneficiary discovery process. Through this, my team and I learned the language of government and how the government operates. These interviews helped our team learn how to communicate like a government employee,” she said.
Now that she works as a federal employee, Claire can look at H4D and the other Hacking4 classes through a different lens than that of a student. She recognizes the benefit of involving students in government problems goes both ways.
“Students love gaining real-world experience with industry and agencies, but the program is invaluable for agencies themselves. They gain students with fresh ideas to attack their problems that may have been a struggle for many years. They bring a new mindset and perspective to it,” she said.
The class has also given birth to 57 “dual-use” startups – those that have commercial and government applications.
They include Capella Space, which spotted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with its synthetic aperture radar satellites; Learn to Win, whose mobile learning platform is changing how the Air Force trains fighter pilots; Anthro Energy, which developed a flexible non-flammable lithium ion battery being used by wearable electronics makers in straps or wristbands (and whose CEO was named to the Forbes 30 under 30); Lumineye, whose technology helps first responders see through walls; and Agrippa, which developed an innovative way to resupply troops in war zones.
Andrew Powell, co-founder of Learn to Win, summed up his experience with the course this way: “The appeal of Hacking 4 Defense was getting to learn the entrepreneurial skill set in the Lean Startup framework while also working on problems that really matter. Without Hacking 4 Defense, it would have taken us years to figure out the nuances of the challenges and how we could contribute.”
Want to step into the arena? Visit h4d.us to learn more, including submitting a problem for H4D students to tackle next semester!