These white hat hackers keep finding new ways to help out the armed services

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This month, an academic program that benefits professional skills of students, and helps the U.S. military solve crucial problems, celebrates five years in operation. Hacking for Defense has had more than 2,000 participants. Joining Federal Drive with Tom Temin for the highlights, a program backer and CEO of BMNT Inc., Pete Newell.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Pete, good to have you back.

Pete Newell: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And you kind of developed the academic courses connected to Hacking for Defense. Give us some of the highlights over the past five years. How has this all been going?

Pete Newell: It’s absolutely amazing to see how it is changed from being a prototype that we actually ran with BMNT that we thought we were going to cancel. Talking about the first time we did this, we ran a program looking at problems for a government client over spring break at Stanford. And we got to the end of that thing and we said really went well, we got to the point that the premise of using problems as a driver to change the conversation between DoD and Silicon Valley worked phenomenally — unfortunately, the the idea of using graduate students during the school year was just really hard because they have classes, they have all kinds of other things to do that get in the way. And in the out-brief of that session to Bill Perry and a few other defense luminaries, we were set to say that it was a great idea but not scalable. When a student who had been helping a stood up in the back of the room, had no military background, said hey, wait a minute has this been a course at Stanford University, I would’ve taken it. And from that, less than a year later, we launched the first Hacking for Defense class at Stanford, not knowing that the government would actually support us with problems, not knowing that that Stanford would ever let us teach the course. And finally, not knowing that the students would actually be interested in it. We went from a single course in 2015 that had more than 190 students sign up for 32 slots. We had I think 18 government sponsors bring us 24 problems. And before we ever taught the first class, we had other universities coming to a saying, you’re gonna open source this thing, and we want to teach this course also, can you help us get set up? So five years later, Hacking for Defense in partnership between the National Security Innovation Network, which is the DoD program manager for Hacking for Defense, BNMT, and the Common Mission Project, which is the nonprofit that we spun out to manage academic programming — has built a course now that was taught in 37 universities in the United States this year, it was taught in seven more in the United Kingdom. We are just last this month launched one on Australia. We also have interest in Singapore, Japan, India, we are working in Chile to help them get started, and a number of other countries. And that’s just the Defense based program. Next year, we’re looking at somewhere between 60 and 70 Hacking for Defense courses taught at different universities internationally.

Tom Temin: In many ways then this belies that notion that the snowflakes of Silicon Valley and their safe spaces on campus and all the rest of it, there are those that understand the importance of national security and are willing to put their brainpower behind helping it.

Pete Newell: There absolutely are. And yes, Stanford can be a bastion for the snowflake mentality, but I will tell you that I have not met in any university we’ve been to I’ve just not seen any pushback on the course. And of course, the idea of teaching students how to take a real world problem and learn about entrepreneurial message while they’re actually talking to real people working on a real problem tends to give them real experience that is highly, highly sought after in the workforce. So virtually every university that teaches his class understands that that outcome is these students are highly sought after, we’re producing something that’s worthwhile. The other concept though is we’re actually providing an opportunity for these young students to actually perform a national public service in a manner that fits with a lifestyle that pay you. 60-to-70% of the students who take this course continue to work with their government problem sponsors after the course ends.

Tom Temin: Give us some examples of the types of issues that have been solved or tagged or moved along in terms of challenges for DoD and the military and national security that have come from these collaborations.

Pete Newell: So coming out of the very first class, we had a problem related to countering illegal commercial fishing, which if you think about this problem it’s a multi-trillion dollar impact, particularly the Pacific Ocean. It is largely the impetus of conflict between multiple nations because that’s a huge force. So we had a student team come into the course with the idea of using synthetic aperture radar from low earth orbit satellites, to do something and really found this problem to be the right nexus of their intellect and focus on on real world problem that does something. That team left the course, realized that they have the promise or the premise for a data company focus on SAR imagery and eventually launched the company and now they’re launching satellites. I wanna say they have four or five satellites up now. There are hundreds of millions in funding into that team that started out Hacking for Defense. You’ll hear the CEO often talk about how the course built the basis for his company and how he still uses what he learned inside the company.

Tom Temin: And would you say that the pandemic and the very large range of problems it has engendered, has that been subjective some of the recent work?

Pete Newell: Yes it has. One is we had to learn how to teach online, and what we found was the ability of students to get out and talk to people virtually, people were suddenly more or more accessible. So we’ve actually found we’re getting more problems into the course and we’re getting more students interested in the course and the students are getting access to more and more people faster, which is creating an even richer course. Now the course also spun out a bunch of different versions. So we started with Hacking for Defense, we are now teaching Hacking for Diplomacy class that’s ongoing at Georgetown University right now. There is a Hacking for Sustainability course being taught in the UK right now. We have taught a number of environmental climate focus programs, in fact I think there are three Hacking for Environment Oceans courses going on this year. And now we’re now looking at a series of post pandemic hacking for, I guess i would call Hacking for Local. But it really centers on when people talk about the economy and building back better, what exactly that is, and how do you take this course is built on entrepreneurship principles in these students and focus them on the local communities? How do you get main street back to a healthy place again and build a community that is more resilient to future pandemics or future of disruption?

Tom Temin: And in many ways the whole premise here then takes the onus of solving every problem off of a trillion dollar federal program and puts it into the economy where the economy benefits the entrepreneur benefits and public life benefits.

Pete Newell: Yes. And the very first thing that happens is the economy pushes back on the government program and says you have the problem wrong. And that’s the very premise for all of these hacking for classes. They’re all problem based and what we’ve come to understand is no problems survives first contact with this course. So the real danger Tom is that the government largely has perfected the ability of perfectly solving the wrong problem. It’s wasting assets and doing that because they’re not spending enough time curating the problem, prioritizing, get the problem definition right and understanding the speed at which the technology related to the problem is changing. All of that comes out on the course of one of these sessions. The students start to dig into it and usually the first pivot in a start up is to change in the business plan. In this case the first pivot is when the student team looks at the government and says the problem wrong and here’s the correct version of the problem.

Tom Temin: Pete Newell is CEO of BMNT Inc. Great five year start, we’ll hope to check in with you, well, before the next five years — but thanks so much for joining me.

Pete Newell: Thanks Tom, I appreciate it.

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