Innovations: The View from Inside
The AFVentures Fellowship is a venture capital industry immersion
program for employees of the Department of Defense (DOD). The program
accepts fellows and places them into venture capital companies and
startups for a six-week immersion.
Early in 2020, I learned about the AFVentures Fellowship: A new opportunity offered through AFWERX, the Air Force’s organization for cultivating innovation. The AFVentures Fellowship is a venture capital industry immersion program for employees of the Department of Defense (DOD). The program accepts fellows and places them into venture capital companies and startups for a six-week immersion. The immersion embeds DOD personnel into the daily operations of venture-capital-funded companies to learn how investments are made and how startups develop technologies. It’s a chance to work alongside the investors who typically drive the early-stage investment in Silicon Valley and are behind so many of the technologies and apps that we use every day.
To me, an enlisted Airman, the fellowship seemed like a tremendous opportunity for professional growth. For the past few years, the Air Force has been working hard to transform the technology acquisition process that allows private companies to work with DOD. This marketplace typically has been the domain of “primes,” large organizations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other prime contractors that develop multibillion-dollar acquisitions for DOD. Current acquisition processes are so complicated and fraught with regulation that many smaller businesses, including tech startups, are advised by investors not to bother with the government marketplace. It’s not worth their time or effort to navigate the bureaucracy. As a contracting officer supporting some highly technical platforms, I’ve witnessed how acquisition regulations diminish the speed of development. So, the fellowship program seemed like a great chance to see how differently technology development through investment is done in the private sector. I applied and was accepted into the fourth cohort of 2020.
The AFVentures Fellowship is managed by Shift’s Defense Ventures Program, a tech startup based in San Francisco, which got its start helping transitioning Service members and veterans find new careers in the tech industry. In 2019, Shift won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR).
The fellowship program has five components:
- An application, which is now open to any DOD employee;
- A preparatory learning stage;
- Immersion with a host company;
- A curriculum focused on venture capital, entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, and the history of DOD and Silicon Valley; and
- A synthesis phase—during which fellows complete a capstone project for their host company as well as an “innovation manifesto,” which is a personal reflection on the immersion experience and how it can be actionable and useful when you return to your unit.
The program includes cohorts of 20 to 25 officers—enlisted personnel as well as civilian employees. Each cohort has a focus tied to an Air Force technology priority, such as technology investment, cyber technologies, artificial intelligence, and others. Fellows have a two-week ramp-up: a Shift part-time bootcamp to get us up to speed for our first day with our host organizations. It includes books, readings, discussions, and guest speakers on topics such as venture capital, creativity, ethics, the history of Silicon Valley, and DOD acquisition pathways for companies. During this time, we also were paired with a private-sector venture capital company, startup, or incubator by Shift using its matching technology. Companies participating in the fellowship program include familiar names, such as Andreessen Horowtiz, Lux Capital, and NEA, but also fast-growing startups in Silicon Valley such as Expanse and r2c. The fellowship program even includes startups in “stealth mode”—i.e., those that haven’t yet publicly announced their products or services. The fellowship is designed to be a career-broadening experience, so participants are expected to return to their units with new knowledge and perspectives.
My cohort was cyber-focused (previous ones had been venture-capital- and investment-focused). The cohort comprised cyber operations officers, intelligence officers, acquisition professionals, and other professionals from across the Air Force and Marine Corps. I quickly came to appreciate Shift’s approach to the program: The cohort was an incredible group with diverse backgrounds, professions, and skill sets. Everyone was excited to learn from one another, no matter their ranks or experiences. I should mention that the program has been virtual since April due to COVID-19, but Shift’s use of collaboration technologies (Slack, Zoom, and others) made it easy for us to get to know each other.
I spent my fellowship with Harpoon Ventures, an early-stage venture capital company based in Silicon Valley that invests in cybersecurity, dual-use technologies, software, and frontier technology companies. It’s made up of a small group of former military and technology professionals who have a lot of experience helping their portfolio companies navigate the many pathways available to locate Air Force and federal government customers. While at Harpoon, I researched technology startups and drafted reports and market analyses on their applicabilities within the federal marketplace. I also helped portfolio companies think about how their products and services could help the Air Force solve tech problems. My capstone project focused on creating easy-to-follow guides for contract opportunities within emerging defense systems like the Advanced Battle Management System (which allows a joint force to use cutting-edge methods and technologies to rapidly collect, analyze, and share information to make decisions in real time) and Platform One (an Air Force team providing secure software development managed services to defense programs.
The fellowship has been a transformational experience for me. Shift organized almost daily guest lectures from leaders at investment firms and tech companies who spoke to our cohort about their investment theses or how to build and run technology companies. My day-to-day immersion with Harpoon opened my mind to new technologies and companies that could be outstanding contributors to the U.S. Air Force.
The following are three insights from my experience that may be helpful to the contracting and DOD acquisition community:
Relationships Are Important
For much of the second half of the 20th Century, DOD drove tech innovation in the United States. Things like the Internet, cell phones, AI, and algorithm development were made possible through partnerships with DOD. But in recent decades, the private sector has eclipsed DOD in many areas of technology development. Now, many companies aren’t familiar with DOD’s mission, and the federal contracting process is viewed as cumbersome and not worth the effort.
For many tech companies, the Defense Ventures Program is their first touchpoint with the military and our mission. We have an opportunity to create inspiration for the mission and to help companies understand there are valuable and accessible market opportunities available in DOD. The trust that develops through professional development programs like this can carry through our careers and with the colleagues we make in Silicon Valley.
Design with User-Centered Journeys in Mind
Even in my short time in the program, I experienced what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos calls “customer obsession.” You might have a great idea for a product, but if no one wants to use it, then it’s not that innovative. When developing our tools, filing systems, and contract writing systems, this concept should be at the forefront of the decision making.
The other side of customer obsession is following up and gathering feedback when a new tool or policy is released. The Air Force contracting mantra, “Tools not Rules,” is excellent, but tools are only effective to the extent that people know they exist and understand how to use them. There are too many examples of policy memos that are signed but not used by the force at large. Understanding why that is—Lack of awareness? Habit? Confusion?—would go a long way in making efficient and effective use of new authorities.
Technical Literacy Is a Human Capital Priority
To field the technical capabilities required to defend against modern threats, DOD needs three things:
- Relationships with the tech industry,
- Processes and initiatives that make it attractive for small businesses to work with DOD, and
- Military and civilian employees who are literate in emerging technologies and agile contracting authorities.
This is especially true for contracting and program managers, who need to have a working knowledge of how technologies operate to oversee and engage with their tech company clients.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation. With so many programs and organizations meant to fuel innovation, the trick is to figure out which are most appropriate for the problem you are trying to solve. As change agents and business advisors, it is essential that we understand all the resources available. Motivated acquisition professionals become discouraged and startup companies lose interest if their passions are not welcomed and channeled into the appropriate pipelines. There is no official heuristic or checklist to provide this direction. In its absence, it falls to leaders and acquisition professionals to understand the tools at their disposal to ensure DOD continues to move forward.
I encourage others in the contracting community to take advantage of the Defense Ventures Program. The people you meet and the knowledge you gain and share during the experience helps make DOD better, faster, and stronger. CM
TSgt James Pitcher (USAF)
- Contracting officer, formerly assigned to the 21st Contracting Squadron, supporting the newly established U.S. Space Force, Peterson-Schriever Garrison, Colorado.
- Defense Ventures Fellow, Harpoon Ventures, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.
- Recently transitioned to Team Lead of the Business Intelligence Competency Cell (BICC), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
For more information on the SBIR Program, as well as the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program, visit https://www.sbir.gov/about.