It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley scene. A group of tech-savvy Stanford students are delivering a passionate pitch about a product they hope is going to change the world, while a room full of venture capitalists, angel investors and entrepreneurs peppers them with questions.
But there’s a twist. This Stanford classroom is also packed with decorated military veterans and active duty officers. And a group of analysts from the U.S. intelligence community is monitoring the proceedings live via an iPad propped up on a nearby desk.
These Stanford students aren’t just working on the latest “Uber for X” app. They’re searching for solutions to some of the toughest technological problems facing America’s military and intelligence agencies, as part of a new class called Hacking for Defense.
“There’s no problems quite like the kind of problems that the defense establishment faces, so from an engineering standpoint, it has the most powerful ‘cool factor’ of anything in the world,” said Nitish Kulkarni, a senior in mechanical engineering.
Kulkarni’s team is working with an organization within the US Department of Defense to devise a system that will provide virtual assistance to Afghan and Iraqi coalition forces as they defuse deadly improvised explosive devices.
“At Stanford there’s a lot of opportunities for you to build things and go out and learn new stuff, but this was one of the first few opportunities I’ve seen where as a Stanford student and as an engineer, I can go and work on problems that will actually make a difference and save lives,” said Kulkarni.
That’s exactly the kind of “21st century tech ROTC” model of national service that Steve Blank, a consulting associate professor at Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, said he had in mind when he developed the class.
“The nation is facing a set of national security threats it’s never faced before, and Silicon Valley has not only the technology resources to help, but knows how to move at the speed that these threats are moving at,” said Blank.
The students’ primary mission will be to produce products that can help keep Americans and our allies safe, at home and abroad, according to Blank.
Former U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Joe Felter, who helped create the class and co-teaches it with Blank, said the American military needs to find new ways to maintain its technological advantage on the battlefield.
“Groups like ISIS, al–Qaeda and other adversaries have access to cutting edge technologies and are aggressively using them to do us harm around the world,” said Felter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is currently a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“The stakes are high – this is literally life and death for our young men and women deployed in harm’s way. We’re in a great position here at Stanford and in Silicon Valley to help make the connections and develop the common language needed to bring innovation into the process, in support of the Department of Defense and other government agencies’ missions.”
The class is an interdisciplinary mix of undergraduate and graduate students, from freshman to fifth year PhD student.
“It’s like a smorgasbord of all these people coming together from different parts and different schools of Stanford, and so I think that’s just a really cool environment to be in,” said Rachel Moore, a first-year MBA student.
Moore’s team includes electrical and mechanical engineering students, and they’re working together to develop a system to enable the Navy’s Pacific Fleet to automatically identify enemy ships using images from drones and satellites.
Months before the course start date, class organizers asked U.S. military and intelligence organizations to identify some of their toughest technological challenges.
U.S. Army Cyber Command wanted to know if emerging data mining, machine learning and data science capabilities could be used to understand, disrupt and counter adversaries' use of social media.
The Navy Special Warfare Group asked students to design wearable sensors for Navy SEALs, so they could monitor their physiological conditions in real-time during underwater missions.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies were interested in software that could help identify accounts tied to malicious “catfishing” attempts from hackers trying to steal confidential information.
And those were just a few of the 24 problems submitted by 14 government agencies.
The class gives eight teams of four students 10 weeks to actively learn about the problem they are addressing from stake holders and end users most familiar with the problem and to iteratively develop possible solutions or a “minimum viable product,” using a modified version of Steve Blank’s “lean launchpad methodology,” which has become a revered how-to guide among the Silicon Valley startup community.
A key tenet of Blank’s methodology is what he calls the “customer discovery process.”
“If you’re not crawling in the dirt with these guys, then you don’t understand their problem,” Blank told the class.
One student team, which was working on real-time biofeedback sensors and geo-location devices for an elite team of Navy SEALS (a project they were initially pitching at “fitbit for America’s divers”), earned a round of applause from the class when they showed a slide featuring photos from a field trip they took to the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field to find out what it felt like to wear a military-grade dry suit.
Rachel Olney, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, said the experience of squeezing into the tight suit and wearing the heavy dive gear gave her a better appreciation for the physical demands that Navy SEALs have to deal with during a mission.
“They’re diving down to like 200 feet for up to six to eight hours…and during that time they can’t eat, they can’t hydrate, they’re physically exerting a lot, because they’re swimming miles and miles and miles at depth and they can’t see and they can’t talk to each other,” Olney said.
“It’s probably one of the most extreme things that humans do right now.”
Another group came in for some heavy criticism from the teaching team for failing to identify and interview enough end users.
But the next week, they were back in front of the class showing a video from a team member’s visit to an Air Force base in Fresno, where he logged some time inside the 90-pound bomb suit that explosive ordinance disposal units wear in the field.
“You can’t address a customer issue unless and until you really step into the shoes of the customer,” said Gaurav Sharma, who’s a student at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
“That was the exact reason why I went to Fresno and wore the bomb suit, to get into the shoes of the end customer.”
Active duty military officers from CISAC’s Senior Military Fellows program and the Hoover Institution’s National Security Affairs Fellows program act as military liaisons for the class and help students navigate the complex defense bureaucracy.
“[The students] have really just jumped in with both feet and immersed themselves in this Department of Defense world that for so many civilians is just very foreign to them,” said U.S. Army Colonel John Cogbill, who has spent the last year as a senior military fellow at CISAC.
“I think they will come away from this experience with a much better appreciation of what we do inside the Department of Defense and Intelligence community, and where there are opportunities for helping us do our jobs better.”
Cogbill said he hoped that some of the inventions from the class, like an autonomous drone designed to improve situational awareness for Special Forces teams, could help the troops on his next combat deployment, where he will serve as the Deputy Commanding Officer of the U.S. Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment.
“It’s not just about making them more lethal, it’s also about how to keep them alive on the battlefield,” said Cogbill.
Students also get support from their project sponsors and personnel at the newly established Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) stationed at Moffett Field.
Another key member of the teaching team is Pete Newell, who was awarded the Silver Star Medal (America’s third-highest military combat decoration), for leading a U.S. Army battalion into the Battle of Fallujah, where he survived an ambush and left the protection of his armored vehicle in an attempt to save a mortally wounded officer.
Newell said he saw first-hand the difference that technology can make on the battlefield in his next job, when he served as director of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, which was tasked with creating technological solutions to the troops fighting in Afghanistan.
“What I realized is that the guys on the front edge of the battlefield who were actually fighting the fight, don’t have time to figure out what the problem is that they have to solve,” Newell said.
“They’re so involved in just surviving day to day, that they really don’t have time to step back from it and see those problems coming, and what they needed was somebody to look over their shoulder and look a little deeper and anticipate their needs.”
One of the first and most urgent problems Newell faced on the job was responding to the sudden spike in IED attacks on dismounted infantry.
The Army was still using metal detector technology from the ‘50s to find mines, but the new breed of IEDs, which were often hidden inside buried milk jugs, were virtually undetectable to the outdated technology.
“They could create an improvised explosive device and a pressure plate trigger…by using almost zero metal content,” Newell said. “It was almost impossible to find.”
Newell’s solution was a handheld gradiometer, the kind of technology used to find small wires in your backyard during a construction project, paired with a ground penetrating radar that can see objects underground.
But by the time the new technology reached troops in the field last summer, more than 4,000 had been wounded or killed in IED attacks.
Newell said he hoped the class would help get life-saving technology deployed throughout the military faster.
“I think it’s important to enable this younger generation of technologists to actually connect with some of the national security issues we face and give them an opportunity to take part in making the world a safer place,” Newell said.
Tom Byers, an entrepreneurship professor in Management Science and Engineering and faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, rounds out the teaching team and brings his experience in innovation education and entrepreneurship to the classroom.
Students said the opportunity to find solutions to consequential problems was their primary inspiration for joining the class.
“When I first came to Stanford, the hype around entrepreneurship was very much around, ‘go out, make an app, do something really fun and cool, and get rich’,” said Darren Hau, a junior in Electrical Engineering.
“In Hacking for Defense, I think you’re seeing a lot of people bring that same entrepreneurial mindset into a problem statement that seems a lot more impactful.”
Felter said he was humbled that so many students were willing to serve in this way.
“It’s encouraging to find out that students at one of our top universities are very interested and highly motivated to work very hard and use their skills and expertise and talent and focus it on these pressing national security problems,” said Felter.
The teaching team said they planned on expanding their class to other universities across the country in the coming years, to create a kind of open source network for solving unclassified national security problems.
For military officers like Cogbill, who will likely soon be leading U.S. soldiers into combat, that’s welcome news.
“Every time you run a course, that’s eight more problems,” Cogbill said.
“If this scales across 10, 20, 30, 40 more universities, you can imagine how many more problems can be solved, and how many more lives can potentially be saved.”