TTT008 Air Force Banshees
9:03PM Nov 17, 2020
We'd like you to speak with the Banshees. This was the invitation that was sent to Forest to me by our colleagues over at Mass Challenge and the Air Force labs to speak with the Banshee training program. These are Air Force acquisitions officers whose mission is to find ways to support technologies and roll them into the mission needs of the Department of Defense. Here's our discussion on developing tough technologies and commercializing them as dual-use ventures with the Banshee training program.
Hello Banshee program. My name is Forrest Meyen, and I'm the co-host of Tough Tech Today. I also have my other co-host here Jmill. Jmill, how are you doing today?
I am doing fine, thank you Forrest. Banshee program, we are honored to speak with you today. And so what we are planning is to have a Q&A between myself and Forrest, about tough technologies, dual-use ventures and the opportunities for you to really make a dent in the universe, given your awesome backgrounds.
So first, I want to just ask you Jmill? Like, why would anyone care what you have to say, tell me a little bit about your background, other than having a podcast.
That's true, not just a media personality. So my background is about five years of applied research and development on behalf of the US Army and Navy and robotics and telehealth. That led me down the path of starting several technical startups and theater in the areas of algorithms and material development. And in some other spaces that then led me to MIT. I studied at MIT and a Masters of Science and Engineering. And now I am working with Airbus Ventures in a Chief Technology Officer-like role where we look for frontier technologies, where we can invest in them and the teams that are making this happen, and to build the future that we would like to see. Forrest, tell me about yourself.
Yeah, so I'm just a tough tech guru. I'm not really guru but my whole life revolves around solving really hard problems. I went to MIT for my Masters and PhD. In my Masters, I designed an exoskeleton to simulate astronaut spacesuits and to kind of simulate the resistance of that as a training tool. And for my PhD, I helped developed Moxie, which is a device that is now well over 100 million miles away from Earth, on the way to Mars, and it's going to be the first demonstration of producing oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars. So do a lot of stuff with tough tech, also a lot with entrepreneurship. I co-founded a company called Raptor Maps that uses drone imagery and AI to inspect solar panels. And I'm also a mentor for the MIT Sandbox Program. Right now, I'm at Draper Labs, just in Cambridge, and we are a nonprofit that develops cutting edge technologies to basically serve our nation. We do a lot of work with the military and also some commercial work. And we have a small group there called Sembler, which is kind of our startup outreach arm where we look to partner with budding companies to form relationships that hopefully can last and turn into awesome collaborations.
Given both of our backgrounds, when people ask us, "so what is this tough tech?" Like, what's this mean? It sounds cool. It kind of rolls off the tongue. But for us, could you help us to double click into that?
Yeah, I mean, I think it's purposely kind of nebulous. It's easier to define what it's not than what it is. But iit's basically when you're taking science and engineering together to solve tough problems that are of great importance to the world that can leverage capital to make a dent in the universe. And so, this is not going to be a CRM cloud software tool, right? It needs to be applying new physical principles that's really creating new technologies. And what really distinguishes this from a lot of other types of startups is that it's generally longer timelines because the milestones might be discovering a new phenomenon and applying it to practice, and that's going to have a lot longer timeframes to completion, than creating a database. So that's kind of you know what it is.
So like Snapchat and Tinder? Probably not.
Probably not. And we're kind of interested in this other especially for this audience, there's another type of venture, which kind of intersects with tough tech a lot. And that would be a dual use venture. And Jmill, can you talk a little bit about what a dual use venture is?
Yeah, happy to do so. And I've written some about it... we'll link to it. Dual-use ventures are deeply technical startup companies. And, importantly, the dual-use part is that these companies could, or do serve commercial and government clients. We see a variety of companies that are striving to work with with the DoD and the government at large. Some of them, I'll say, sort of the negative side, some of them look like they're kind of like grant mills, who are just applying for grants trying to get today and stringing along that way. The other side of this are the companies that really need and benefit from these grants to be able to get to the proof-of-concept stage, and then get beyond that so whether it's, phase one to phase two and into the much bigger dollar and collaboration sizes of a phase three. And so we work and study that process of growing companies to be able to support and make benefit both to the government and again to feeding that back into the private sector.
So you're saying that the reason why a tough tech company would want to consider a dual-use path is that there's additional government money that can be used to de-risk the technology? Are there other reasons why you'd want to be a dual-use company and not just only pursue commercial clients or only pursue government contracts?
Well, yeah, that's a great question for us and absolutely the dollars and cents of it do make a difference. So, if I'm an entrepreneur, and I am trying to figure out then what the lifeblood of a company is, the passion, blood, sweat, and money to be able to make this the ship continue to go forward. And so, government funding is non-dilutive in that mean that the government doesn't really want to have an equity stake in my company, which is really good: it helps ensure that I can I look out for the best interest of my company. And so there's that component that's really important of... collaborating with the government. Additionally, though, there are so many of us who have either a background that's supporting the government or a wish to be able to really make a difference, not just in private sector. And so that mission driven mentality can come through by supporting, nurturing these kind of dual-use ventures.
Okay, so a mission is a big part of it.
Mission driven is really a big part of that. And Forrest, both you and I have ties through MIT and the Cambridge, Boston ecosystem. And with that, we see a combination of folks who are like, say, the scientists or sort of "true blue" dyed-in-the-wool engineers who just want to build something cool. But we see this whole spectrum also of folks that want a bigger purpose to it than just building something that works really cool. Could you tell us a bit about... through the overall ecosystem within the Boston, Cambridge area of where and how dual-use ventures can get uptake? And how that might be exportable or not around the world?
Sure, yeah. So I mean, in general, there's quite a well developed ecosystem in Boston, and in the United States, as well. In general, this startup innovation ecosystem really consists of five groups. There's entrepreneurs: these are the people that are betting their chips on their ideas and saw a problem, maybe as they're serving in the military, maybe they put two different experiences together, and they're driving home to really get this thing out there. You have the universities, and this is a really strong part about Boston with Harvard and MIT and Tufts and BU, and all these universities doing research; that's where you get a lot of the really deep tech studies that that professors are working on for many, many years, and entrepreneurs might notice a technology that can be taken out of the lab and applied, so that's a huge source of really knowledge and new innovative knowledge that goes into the ecosystem. Of course, we have really good risk capital that's available through the VCs that are here, and there's also partners for government, and there's lots of local government agencies, and Jmill can talk a little bit about some of those opportunities. And then there's also corporate partners. And, for example, Draper would be one of those. What are some of these things that the government's doing to try to actually interface with these dual-use companies?
It's a multitude of things, and I won't be so rosy cheeks to does to say that it's all going great... there are lots of areas of improvement. And nevertheless, some of the exciting things that we've been seeing are through the US Air Force with the AFWERX program. That's probably the biggest name that's come on the block over the years... the sort of the innovation that they are promoting, encouraging, not just with their dollars, but also with some of their thought leadership. There's also programs like NavalX: they're in the naval agility cell, as well as the various tech bridges that are placed across United States that act as a great liaison, if you will, to interface between, say, a government lab... like a national lab... and with the private sector at large. And so it's really great to see when there are... a national lab that has some really awesome equipment, some really great instrumentation that not just any folks would have much common access to, and being able to provide a program in which folks from the community can be able to make use of that instrumentation.
So but how does that work? Like, where do I go? Let's say I'm a startup, and I think I might need like a scanning electron microscope to look at my material. Is this tech bridge like a website I go to, or someone I talked?
It is both. And I'll say that websites... and our audience may be able to sympathize... Sometimes the websites are not always the best or most intuitive to use. And so it is going to come down to people... at the end of the day, all this is people, and we know that the government is not some big monolithic structure that operates as one big homogenous unit. Not at all, it's about the people. And so it does come from the conversations, the websites maybe provide the initial lead, maybe the initial name of a program manager, or the managing office, and those are great points to then pick up the phone and start talking to people. And oddly enough, at least to me, it's a bit counterintuitive, but the government at large, and all the various agencies and groups tend to be quite effective using social media. And so through the social media channels, that can be a great way to be able to figure out who do you need to talk to next and always being on the phone or in tweets, etc, asking like...
If I want the latest updates, I need to need a follow what? AFWERX's Instagram account?
That's a good... yeah, I'd be curious.
And other more formal programs that exist that you can apply to and have a really clear path of entry to help get you those connections would be things like TechStars Air Force, that's actually based here locally, so it's a startup accelerator and I think startup accelerators are good for new entrepreneurs or people looking for connections. They really coach you on the basics on how to form your company and help you with working with that sort of theme group. And so in the instance of TechStars Air Force you would learn how to work with the Air Force. And then there's also other programs like FedTech is another one where they have opportunities for you to be part of an accelerator program, they partner with different government agencies, to both get the government technologies actually out into the open, so there's opportunities to join even without an idea, and they help guide you through looking at how to commercialize new technology, as well as they have some other types of accelerator programs where you bring your idea in, and they help you find partners. How important is it to find an early partner within the government?
Well it's important but also challenging. It's not just about finding a partner in the government and some folks who are coming from a government need to really push out of the mentality that government has everything it needs. It doesn't as you know. The private sector thinks about things a little bit differently. And so we see that, whether you're interested in going to one of these sort of magnet locations, like a TechStars Air Force, or 500 Startups or what have you, that the really exciting teams tend to be able to balance folks who have government or a military background and other members of the team who absolutely do not. And it's in that balance between the different mindsets that we really see some really exciting companies and an ability to not just steward a new technology, to make some kind of newfangled feature, but going way beyond that and being able to build optionality and so that we can serve so many more kinds of customers, and really make that contribution to humankind. It takes getting out of the silo stage. So is there some hacks that you found or ways to of talking with these kind of maybe interesting demographics to figure out what kind of mission we need to be on to help bridge that gap?
Yeah, I mean, there's a number of hacks, one thing that you have to realize is that and you see this a lot in research too... it's called responder bias, right? You'll ask someone, do you like what I have, right? And people are generally agreeable, and they'll say, sure, right? So sometimes when you get feedback, you might want to present things at an arm's reach so perhaps you talk about a couple different ideas, without the other person actually knowing which one is your main idea that you're focusing on, right? So you can get more honest feedback on that, or maybe they don't even necessarily need to know that's exactly your idea; maybe you're evaluating some technology but not necessarily instructing them that this is your baby. I think that there's a way to get more honest feedback. And then there's a lot of other ways where it just depends on the type of technology. For consumer technology, it's way different,you can find Facebook groups for feedback. With the government, the military, sometimes you can get hints of what the government is interested in at the time through the types of solicitations they're posting that will often be a driver for what different groups are interested in, so definitely check those out under the SBIR websites and also BAA calls.
Yeah, those are great tips. And then on the other side, in the commercial or private sector, figuring out what may be needed in a couple years time, because again, we're looking... I mean it takes takes a long time to build most anything well, whether it be at a startup or new technology or both. And so looking at where the where the ball, so to say is going is important. So on the private sector... I'm actively encourage anyone who's coming from the government or sort of federal position or military to really try to stretch outside the comfort zone, talking with folks who are working in the commercial sector. Because you'll find that there's a mentality difference oftentimes. And so that's where if we look into startup lore... like reading online and stuff, there are various frameworks like Bill Aulet has the 21 steps for entrepreneurship, Disciplined Entrepreneurship... there are others. Forrest, I think you have some that you've in mind.
I mean, if you're talking about like ways to kind of get started, just closing the loop on all of these things you need to figure out there's a number of templates that you can look at. I mean, some of them... there's this book, Business Model Generation and this has a technique called the Startup Canvas. And that Canvas kind of helps walk you through customers and.... here's kind of what it looks like but... helps helps you walk through your customer segments, your value proposition, who your partners are things that you need to do to serve a customer. From MIT, Bill Aulet has this program called Disciplined Entrepreneurship and it's another way to kind of walk you through the process of customer discovery, developing your product, refining your persona. And then there's either one or the other, or any other sort of method works with what's just the easiest thing is you don't need to reinvent the wheel as far as the process of building a company. You need to focus on reinventing whatever service you're providing. So pick up one of those methods and just walk through it. And it's always a good guide to get started quick.
Yeah, absolutely. These are opinionated ways of doing it. And each one's a different stab about how to stratify or structure this process. Again, it's ultimately a wandering path, but you can be guided in that path to try to to least get the cart behind the horse in most times. The path is a difficult trail anyhow.
So Jmill, you're at Airbus Ventures. And so that's a corporate VC. What's it like for a startup to work with a corporate VC and what is a corporate VC like Airbus Ventures, looking for when founders come to them?
With Airbus Ventures, we are... yeah, we are technically a corporate VC, though we are structured as a group; we are structured more like a traditional Silicon Valley venture capital fund, and so that means that we share the name Airbus and really honored to have that the mothership, the name there and the backing of that, but Airbus is only one of several investors in our group. And so what it means is that we are looking for not just aerospace advantages, or like frontier technologies that would serve aerospace as as customers, but also what I'll say is aerospace adjacent. And so these are areas like automotive, or various flavors of quantum computing, and different in neuromorphic, computing or DNA data storage. It's a variety of different fields, sectors, that we may even not have good words to describe what this field is; we just know it's something that looks like it's going to be playing a role in the future. And so we're looking for the teams that really have that vision of what a future is that we think we should we, as a society, should have. And so we'll then back those teams and nurture them over the years to be able to hopefully get to the next stage, whether it's... usually finding the big customers or a lot of customers in the private sector, in the government sectors. But occasionally, it happens, some fail, some struggle to be able to get to the next stage of growth of revenue, of impact. And so for the audience, it's a cautionary tale, but it's also that when you read anything with startups, all inevitably hear about venture capital and there's a whole spectrum of like "venture capital is awesome!" or called "vulture capital" because they just show up and try to take a piece of the company and pick it apart and there's elements of that that are all true, but it depends on the individuals who are in that venture capital group. And so some are more friendly than others and so...
You think you're a friendly one, right?
Yeah, I try not to have a deceiving smile, I try to be true blue genuine so... haha. But something on this endeavor that we have and we can share with you as a friendometer for dual-use ventures. And so this is like a cheat sheet that is a database of some of the companies... some of the venture funds that I've seen, either talked to them directly or seeing evidence through the network that various levels of support for dual-use and or tough tech ventures. And so we have a rank...
So we got that up on the screen now and there's I guess there's two axes. Can you kind of explain what we're looking at?
Yeah, happy to do so. On the vertical axis, it's what we call the enthusiasm for working with dual-use ventures. And so this generally is coming from the private sector looking toward government as a client. And so an enthusiasm for working with the DOD, from maybe "has potential" on up to, high on the list, is "passionate". A passionate venture capital group likely has government veterans who are on the payroll or close at hand, and this venture capital group, the upper left quadrant of this table, these groups are either pretty much purpose built to fund dual-use ventures, so whether with a strong government focus, or they have teams within the venture group that will cater to that, whereas other parts may go after the next kind of Tinder or Snapchat. And then on the x axis, on the horizontal, we have the level of technical comfort, and this is pretty much binary. It's either folks that are more comfortable working with some familiar technology that you can easily Google about what it is or even non-technical stuff. And then there's a line and then it's the tough tech designation. So that tough technology, we mentioned it earlier about how it's a different kind of play, and generally a longer haul but with the hopeful output that it's a much bigger change in the way our society works if these companies are successful. This is a look at dual-use ventures in the context of raising funds, through venture capital. But there's a variety of other sort of collaborators or allies out there. Forrest, could you tell us about the the startup program that you've been working on at Draper?
Yeah. So Draper Labs. So we're a non-profit in a research lab spun out of MIT a long time ago but we primarily service government customers, we have a group called the Sembler group. And we're a group that basically interfaces with startups, and helps to basically form partnerships with them, and we don't invest. We're a nonprofit, we can't take much equity from privately funded companies, but what we do is we, if there's a synergy between a customer need that we have, this could be someone we work with a lot in the DoD or NASA or somewhere else in the government. If they have a particular need and a startup as a solution, we find a way to work together. And we can actually serve as like a contract vehicle to help get funding for that startup from the government to help provide that solution. And we also can be a way for startups to test their technology inside much larger systems. So they might have a small component of a larger system. And we can find ways to help integrate that into our system. And also we provide feedback on things and work with companies on later stage SBIRs and stuff like that. So we're just here to establish long term relationships with the startup community.
With all this discussion that we've been having, it's so much like rah rah rah startups and technology. So let me put a question to you, what do you think over the past 50 years would be the biggest innovation in terms of value creation? Is it like the personal computer, the internet, social networking, hybrid cars, satellites, synthetic biology? Like what do you think, Forrest?
Hmm, well, I mean, the internet's pretty big. But an interesting thing about all of these inventions or a good majority of these inventions is the innovation ecosystem that is an innovation in itself that has allowed a lot of these things to come to fruition. I mean, the research that helps create the internet came from the government, but what really enabled it was startups and capital in this ecosystem, seeing what it could be, right? You have companies like Google and Facebook... those arose out of this ecosystem that is a combination of research, innovation, and capital that really created something new each time. And so, I think in general that ecosystem would be one of the greatest innovations. It's kind of a messy and hard to pin down on a single thing. I don't know if you can say anything else about what you think about that.
Yeah, no, I agree. Well said. Yeah, I think entrepreneurial innovation is the biggest innovation and will continue to be such a major driver, like all the big tech companies, your Apple's, your Amazon, Google's Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Genentech, Amgen, thousands of other companies have changed our lives, not always for the best, but so many for the better. And that this is the result of an entrepreneur finding folks to support him or her on an awesome mission. So Forrest, where do you recommend that that folks start?
Yeah, so there's some resources that are specially designed for veterans. So I would check out the New York University, Tandem Future :abs, and that website right there futurelabs.nyc. There's also Purdue's Cyber Apprenticeship Program: check that out at centers.purdue.edu/pcap. And also the North Carolina State AI Academy Co-Op program, ai-academy.ncsu.edu. There are a lot of great resources, on top of some of the texts that I mentioned to just learn about things such as Discipline Entrepreneurship or the Startup Model Canvas, and check because a lot of local communities have their own programs, but the ones I just mentioned are specific for veteran support. Do you have anything else you'd like to add to that Jmill?
Yeah, I have some writings that we can share. One of the pieces is entitled, "Who's your ally: how tech startups navigate venture capital and federal funding?" And there's also... for those of you who are affiliated with or have experience in national labs, we have a paper that the MIT Innovation Initiative had put out last year about Naval Service Warfare Center - Crane and an innovation analysis of that lab. And so you may find it interesting and we think that there are some recommendations in there that are well transferable across many of the other national labs in the country. And as a plug for both Forrest and myself. We are the co-hosts of Tough Tech Today with Meyen and Miller. And so we picked three episodes in our series on dual-use ventures that we think that you'd enjoy. And so the first... it starts off with MIT's Katy Person, her background is in US Army acquisitions. And her talk is on launching dual-use ventures. Then we follow up with the team at FedTech, where they speak about venturing into federal technologies and the development thereof. And then finally, we have Orin Hoffman, who's a venture partner at MIT's The Engine venture capital group in which he speaks about investing in America's innovation engine. So these are three among several podcast episodes that we think you'd really enjoy. So check them out.
That's all the time we have today. Thank you very much for joining us. My name is Forrest Meyen.
And I am Jonathan 'Jmill' Miller. Stay tough! We're glad you were able to listen in on the conversation. If you have questions or comments on anything that we said, feel free to let us know we'd be happy to hear what you have to say. Be sure to sign up or subscribe wherever you like to listen or watch us because our next episode is with Justin Cyrus who's built Lunar Outpost, a company that designs robots for the moon and resource utilization up on that the big 'ol rock we can see in the night sky.