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Ensuring That Defense Agencies Will Have Access to a Community of Entrepreneurs and Innovators

By Congressman Dan Lipinski, Steve Blank, and Pete Newell

When it comes to keeping our country safe and secure, Congress found a way to agree.

Congress has just authorized the Secretary of Defense to fund the Hacking for Defense program, a partnership between the Department of Defense and universities in which our nation’s best and brightest students perform national service while working on national security problems.

We now face an innovation gap in the Defense Industrial Base and in our Department of Defense. The companies that serve the armed forces cannot produce innovations fast enough, and the often smaller companies that excel at innovation are not focused on defense.

Our Armed Forces are first among peers globally in part because they have historically had access to the most advanced technology and innovators in the world. However, startups, technology companies, and other business opportunities have pulled many of the country’s engineers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs away from solving military problems.

An outdated defense acquisition system that rewards large companies that specialize in government contracting over startups and small businesses has furthered the shift. Why should a startup spend a year filling out paperwork, when in the same amount of time, they could raise tens of millions of dollars and build and ship advanced technology?

The solution to this problem is to introduce rising engineers, computer scientists, scientists, and entrepreneurs to the rewards and benefits of working on national security challenges. One of us developed a course at Stanford called Hacking for Defense, which pairs teams of students with government sponsors who provide the students with real national security challenges facing the Department of Defense.

Because the students are taught to focus on defining the problem before attempting to solve it, the results are sometimes surprising. For example, a team that was initially tasked with developing a strategy to monitor the vital signs of Navy SEAL divers learned that what the divers really needed was a better GPS navigation system so that they could spend less time underwater.

Another team that was initially tasked with designing a fleet of small imaging satellites for the Navy learned that the Navy, and potentially many other customers, would be better served not by owning the satellites but by purchasing data and analytics the satellites provide. As a result of these discoveries, the students pivot, shifting their focus to where there is better product-market fit, and providing critical, cost-saving information to the government before it issues a contract.

To our surprise, at the end of the class, many of the students – who had job offers from companies like Google, Facebook, and Tesla – instead decided to continue working with their sponsors on national security problems. Exposing students to the defense and intelligence communities helps train a new class of innovators to serve our national security needs, and introduces them to new business opportunities they had not previously considered. Several Hacking for Defense teams have gone on to start companies to continue working on defense-related projects.

Recognizing the remarkable early success of Hacking for Defense, which began as a pilot at Stanford in 2016 and has expanded to seven other universities in a year, we saw the potential to significantly scale up the class in order to create a major positive impact on national security. In July of this year, one of us, along with co-sponsor Steve Knight (R-Calif.), introduced a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, authorizing the Department of Defense to develop curriculum, recruiting materials, and best practices to help spread the program to universities around the country.

In September, thanks to the efforts of Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and a bipartisan group of supporters, the U.S. Senate incorporated a companion amendment into its version of the NDAA. The final conference version of the bill contains strong support for Hacking for Defense, recognizing it as a contributor to national security innovation and entrepreneurial education. We thank the bipartisan, bicameral group of Hacking for Defense Congressional champions for their leadership in securing the passage of these amendments, and we urge Congress to support passage of the bill.

In Washington, bipartisan policymaking is often a challenge, but the broad base of support for the Hacking for Defense program is a testament to its effectiveness and potential. Ensuring that our defense agencies will have access to a community of entrepreneurs and innovators into the future, and that the Defense Industrial Base will be able to continue to keep our economy strong are issues that cross party lines. We are excited to see Congress coming together to make us safer, boost the economy, and create good jobs, and we look forward to watching the Hacking for Defense program grow.

Lipinski represents Illinois' 3rd District and is a member of the Science Committee. Steve Blank, adjunct professor at Stanford, and retired Army Col. Pete Newell, former director of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, are Hacking for Defense program creators.