The Business of Defense

Former Navy pilot brings data to tactical edge for warfighters in flight

Discover how a former Navy pilot brings data to the tactical edge for warfighters in flight.

To understand Fuse Integration, a company whose products give warfighters in flight a data-driven tactical advantage, you simply need to get the backstory on its founder, Sumner Lee.

“I started out my life in the Navy as a knuckle-dragging CH-46 pilot, flying an age-old helicopter. The most advanced piece of technology that we had was a handheld Garmin GPS,” which pilots held out their windows to get a signal, Lee said.

Bringing more technology to military airspace became a passion. Lee never looked back, moving from helicopters to naval IT during a nearly six-year stint at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. Next stop, after a couple of years working in product design? Founding Fuse Integration in San Diego in 2010.

“Fuse puts the internet into aircraft. We bring a combination of resilient and secure networks to the tactical edge,” Lee explained during an interview for the American Society of Military Comptrollers’ The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network.

“We utilize various forms of satellite communications — a lot of new low Earth orbit satellites, medium Earth orbit satellites and geostationary satellites, different kinds of links — bringing that advanced technology data and information out to the tactical edge. Then, we put that together and network that with mesh network links and tactical data links.”

Taking an unexpected career path

Lee also shared that an entrepreneurial streak runs deep in his DNA.

“My dad started a boat business called Centurion Boats the year I was born. I’ve been around innovation, and experimentation, and development and business growth for my entire life,” he said. “And so I always knew I wanted to do something like that.”

Even so, the path that led to Fuse was a bit mystifying to his family, particularly his dad.

“In high school, when I said, ‘I think I might go to the Naval Academy,’ he said, ‘You’re gonna do what? You know you have to be in the Navy if you do that,’ ” Lee recalled with a chuckle.

But that experience paved the path toward his current work as a government contractor. “It became an incredible experience, and my Naval Academy years were formative and amazing,” Lee said. “I really started to love and fall in love with the people inside the Navy.”

That has not changed. People serving the country remain at the center of how Fuse develops its airborne networking and data technologies. “We spend a lot of time working with the warfighter. That’s really one of the things that drove me to start Fuse — staying focused on the warfighter,” he said.

Continuing to defy GovCon norms

Today, Fuse’s products run on both Navy and Air Force platforms, including on the B-52, the B-1 Bomber, unmanned aircraft, helicopters and maritime unmanned surface vehicles. And Lee expects that Fuse will become a $100 million company within the next couple of years. Inc. Magazine named Fuse to its 2024 list of the pacific region’s fastest-growing private companies.

He attributes the company’s success to approaches that are bit different than other government contractors providing technology to the Defense Department.

Lee pointed to Fuse’s product development approach as a key factor. It combines commercial user-focused design thinking with agile technology development and flight expertise.

“That constant process is a cycle of building understanding, building the system and testing it in the hands of the user and then pulling those insights back into the process so you can iterate on that design,” Lee said.

But explaining that to Defense acquisition teams and command leaders can sometimes be tough, he said.

“You can’t just go pick up agile software development and drop it down into military products,” Lee said. “You have to have deadlines. You have to have capabilities that are enabled at certain times to enable kill chains that are critical for our warfighters.”

He recommended that every company that works with DoD spend time with the sailors, Marines, aviators and warfighters who use their equipment in the real world — even if a contract doesn’t call for it.

“Having your team understand what they’re doing and the challenges that those users face makes your products a thousand times better,” Lee said.

Delivering the right data to the warfighter at the right time

That’s how the Fuse team determines the data Lee called superfluous to the mission. Because it’s so much easier now to deliver data to the cockpit than when he flew that CH-46 helicopter, what matters is that it’s only the data that’s needed at the moment.

“We might be able to give them all the data in the world,” Lee said. “But they need to stay focused on one route of flight, one mission objective and the pieces of data that are going to help them make specific decisions along that route so that they can survive and that they can accomplish their mission. We actually spend a whole lot of time with the users looking at: How do we deprecate information away from what we’re putting in front of them?”

Teasing out those workflow threads can vary tremendously across missions and environments, so adaptability matters, he said. Plus, there’s also a need to create airborne networking tools that can integrate new technologies as they emerge too, things like artificial intelligence.

“Being ready and transitioning to those advanced technologies that come along, playing with AI, playing with natural language models, being able to inject different types of applications and sensors and tools into what we’re doing — there’s a huge opportunity for what we’re doing right now to accelerate the pace of delivering technology to the fleet,” Lee said.

To listen to the full discussion between Sumner Lee, CEO of Fuse Integration, and Rich Brady, CEO of ASMC, click the podcast play button below:

Discover more stories about how to thrive as a federal contractor. Find all episodes of The Business of Defense podcast.

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