August 1, 2022

The largest pain point for entrepreneurs interested in working with the government is that the government isn’t very good at working with commercial companies outside of the defense industry. This hindrance to securing defense funding has been a deterrent for some innovators and a source of frustration for most. 

In a recent chat with Lucas Bagno and Ian Cinnamon on Village Global’s Solarpunk podcast, we dove into this and other common conundrums facing dual-use entrepreneurs, focusing on three critical things every dual-use entrepreneur needs to succeed: A trusted network of investors and others; processes to enhance learning and ensure a steady influx of funding; and someone who can help a young company navigate the differences between the tech and government worlds.

Talk to people to build your network

My top advice for dual-use entrepreneurs is this: if you're going to invest in something, invest in building your networks in the venture capital world, inside Department of Defense and in policy places, so that you know who to go to to ask questions that will help you make progress.

The BMNT-supported Defense Investor Network is an example of a network created for this very purpose, and there are many organizations with access to people like us who will help startups develop a dual-use cycle that enhances features for government use while generating more attention from commercial venture investors.

In addition, there are a number of programs run by the National Security Innovation Network, the Defense Innovation Unit, Naval-X, and AFWERX focused on drawing in more ideas. 

Bottom line: Talk to people. You can research via the Internet, but that doesn’t replace talking to real humans.  Find somebody in at least one of those organizations to talk to and begin building your network. If you have a great network, you can get a lot of help without spending a lot of money. 

Build processes to reduce pain and enhance learning

A second important area that dual-use founders should devote time to is to develop processes to attract a steady influx of funding and key learnings. 

Layering funding from commercial and government entities can help a startup survive lean times. For example, an ongoing process that oscillates between government and commercial funding can help you take seed money to boost yourself to the point where you can earn grants within the military. This can help gain access to superusers who will teach you what next steps and possibilities are for your product. 

That learning, in turn, will make you attractive to investors, not just because you know more about your product and your market, but also because you've expanded the marketplace beyond commercial to the government. More importantly, maximizing learning without burning up equity makes you more commercially attractive. This method isn’t perfect for every technology, but it can be a hugely powerful investment thesis to follow.

Found in Translation: Hire people who talk the talk

In the tech innovation world, we have a language problem. The DoD has a language, the commercial world has a language, and Congress has a language. Oftentimes these entities will completely talk past each other while discussing the exact same thing because of simple vocabulary differences. 

Believe it or not, there are people whose job is to understand your goals and connect you to people who will teach you the right words to describe what you're trying to do. Whether you hire a lobbyist or another expert, the important focus must be on bridging the language barrier to make your life easier and achieve your objectives. For a young company, an early priority must be to hire people who will help you connect into the places where you need to be, and be able to represent you in the most effective language possible.

You can hear my entire conversation with Ian and Lucas here or skip to the time stamps below for more.

  • Don’t be afraid to risk your career to innovate (5:57)
  • Deal flow is everything. Here’s what you need to have a robust pipeline (7:05)
  • How time at the Rapid Equipping Force, in Boston, and in Silicon Valley showed me the gaps in emerging tech (12:09)
  • The biggest shortcoming of SBIR programs  (22:39)
  • The challenges of landing a government contract  (29:19)
  • Dual-use companies are never linear. If you think that way you will probably fail (30:32)
  • What keeps me up at night? The Department of Defense isn’t building a workforce to do the work it needs done, and there currently aren’t enough trained people in critical fields. (37:18)
  • Why we need a symbiotic relationship between an acquisition system that delivers battleships, aircraft carriers, tanks, etc., and an innovation system that delivers new technology at speed and scale. (41:18)