BUILDING A CYBERSECURITY BRIDGE
BETWEEN STARTUPS AND THE MILITARY
Universities are becoming incubators for innovation.
teve Blank wants you to rethink everything you thought you knew about government. Especially the stereotype of
agencies that are hidebound, inflexible and out of touch. And he’s especially insistent when he’s speaking to gifted students with a tech background and entrepreneurial aspirations. He has big plans for them, and he believes they can help make us all a little safer.
Blank was speaking at a panel discussion in January hosted by Columbia University, where he’s a senior fellow for entrepreneurship. It’s a subject he knows pretty well. He founded or worked in eight startups, and half of them went public. His own introduction to the tech industry occurred after he joined the Air Force and volunteered to go to Vietnam. “I spent a year and a half in Southeast Asia learning electronics,” he told the audience. “And when I got out, I ended up in Silicon Valley in the mid 1970s, when we were selling equipment to other businesses.” That was because the consumer electronics business didn’t exist. The government and the defense industry were the Valley’s big innovators back then. “Lockheed was the largest employer,” Blank said. “I worked for a startup run by someone named Bill Perry. He ended up eventually as the secretary of defense. So my introduction to the Valley was a halfway house between startups and the military.”
Now he’s trying to build a bridge between the two. The government needs to innovate to counter the high-tech threats it faces from global adversaries, Blank explained. It needs energy and vision comparable to what you find in Valley startups. But rather than seek to lure talent from there, he is grooming it at universities by creating courses with names like Hacking for Diplomacy and Hacking for Defense.
The idea is to present students with some real problems government agencies are trying to solve and see what they can come up with in 10 weeks. The goal is not only to solve problems, it’s to create a public service career path for young tech innovators.
(from left) Justin Fox, Avril Haines and Steve Blank
Sitting next to Blank on the stage was Avril Haines, a lawyer and former deputy National Security Advisor under Obama who is now a senior research scholar at Columbia and a lecturer in law. Haines was an entrepreneur herself shortly after college, when she founded and ran a successful bookstore/café before she sold it and went to law school. But for this talk, which was moderated by Bloomberg View columnist Justin Fox, she was speaking as a recent government insider with a ringside view of the biggest threats the country faces.
“In the national security world,” Haines said, “we are consistently facing more threats more quickly—the generation cycle is faster—and they’re more complex in the sense that you typically need greater and diverse expertise to really understand them and deal with them on a consistent basis.”
Cyber is high on the list of critical vulnerabilities, she said, noting that 50 percent of households have a smart meter attached to their electricity. “An adversary looks for places where they can innovate and find ways to hold at risk, at relatively low cost to them, things that are of value to us. Similarly we need to innovate in order the think through how we can respond without actually hurting the great value that all of these areas bring to the United States.”
For this reason, she continued, innovation is “critical to dealing with national security issues.” Effective responses require execution, “but you also need an innovation culture. The two can coexist.”
Blank had already made incursions into the academy before he introduced his hacking classes. He’d realized that business schools and investors invariably treated startups as smaller versions of large companies. They asked fledgling entities for 40-page business plans without realizing that nearly all of these companies were run by visionaries. For them it wasn’t about executing their business model; it was about finding one.
“We had built 100 years of management tools for execution,” he told the Columbia crowd, “but very little methodology
create something called the Lean Startup, which “established a set of rules for startups on how to think about
Based on this groundwork, in 2011 he created a class called The Lean LaunchPad. It was all about talking to potential customers, building viable products and designing a business model. As it started to catch on with universities, a funny thing happened, Blank said. He’d been blogging about it, posting his class notes, and through these he developed a small but influential fan club within the government. Washington had long given out research grants that included money for commercialization, but had never offered recipients any guidance on how to start a business. Blank’s Lean Startup struck some people there as just what they needed, so the National Science Foundation adopted it. After that, a host of other agencies followed suit.
By 2013, the wider business world had taken notice. ”It happened to be the time when large companies were dealing with continuous disruption,” Blank noted. “And for the first time large companies were looking to startups for methodologies.” That’s when the Harvard Business Review ran a cover that said: Why the Lean Start-up Changes Everything. More than 80 universities are now teaching courses.
Three years later Stanford offered Hacking for Defense. The following semester it added Hacking for Diplomacy. The methodology is basically the same as the Lean Startup courses. They talk to lots of potential customers and try to build viable products. But the problems they’re addressing are ones government agencies are trying to solve. About 10 universities offer these classes now, Blank said.
He’s particularly pleased that students have responded so positively. But the big deal to him is what he hopes it does for the country. “Think about retail today in the United States,” he told the audience. “It’s literally being taken apart by Amazon. Some form of retail will continue to exist, but it won’t look anything like today.
“The problem I observed, and the reason why I’m interested in government,” he concluded, “is that we can afford to have Macy’s go out of business. We can’t afford to have our intelligence community go out of business.“
A serial entrepreneur is having an impact that’s been felt in the academy, business and government.
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