There is a virtuous insurgency growing in the Department of Defense (DOD). It is a quiet fight under the surface of the defense bureaucracy. It is taking place in the spare time of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians as they ideate, network, and struggle to transform their visions into reality.
Innovation continues to be an active buzzword within DOD. It gained prominence in 2014 with the creation of the Defense Innovation Initiative by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Its use expanded in 2016 with the creation of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board and the linking of the concept to the generational challenges of the Third Offset Strategy. This approach to future wars is dependent on rapid integration of new technologies and the formation of an agile cohort of personnel who will employ them.
Even though the use of the term innovation is on the rise, the realization of opportunities to innovate within DOD remains uneven. The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, for instance, did not receive funding for fiscal year 2017, effectively ending the program. At the same time, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental has expanded from its initial Silicon Valley location to new sites in Boston, Massachusetts; and Austin, Texas. Even while DOD continues to grapple with the future of innovation, grassroots efforts are taking place.
In the bright halls of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and on the polished concrete of Bunker Labs in Chicago, Illinois, more than 100 like-minded reformers met in early October 2016 to inspire innovation during the 4th Annual Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF). Among them were currently serving active-duty, guard, and reserve military members, veterans, retirees, and civilians from government and business.
In their War on the Rocks article, retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel explained that the DEF network makes up a “Virtuous Insurgency” seeking new ways for DOD to leverage creative thinkers both within and outside government. The DEF network has no formal member process or annual fees. Instead, it is a self-organizing collective whose mission is to help innovators make outsized impacts on the world around them. Among DEF’s past achievements is “The F5 Report,” which was used by senior leaders when creating the Force of the Future initiatives.
Mirroring the Navy’s Athena Project, the DEF—sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute for the third consecutive year—culminated in a pitch competition focused on DOD’s missions and objectives. The four judges—Todd Connor, Rachelle Oribio, Brandon McPherson, and Fred Rainbow—brought their breadth of experience to advise and judge the pitch competitors. Todd Conner serves as the CEO of The Bunker Labs and is co-founder of Flank 5 Academy. Rachelle Oribio is the program director for Techstars++ and avidly supports responsible business and social enterprise. Brandon McPherson, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, is currently a vice president with Goldman Sachs. Fred Rainbow is the director of periodicals for the U.S. Naval Institute.
This year’s three winners shared $5,000 in prize money. The winner of the competition was Jason Ray, a Supply Corps officer in the Navy Reserve and co-founder of Sightline Maps. His pitch described an already functioning web-based platform that converts a digital topographic map into a file that can be used to produce 3D-printed models or viewed digitally on a virtual reality headset. Zach Howitt, a former naval officer, won second place with his SurveyMyCommand.com idea to merge glassdoor.com and ratemyprofessors.com creating a powerful command remediation, resolution, and feedback system. Robert Holliday, a company commander in the Army Reserve, placed third with Anodyne. His idea for a web-based marketplace for global data would enable the reliable dissemination and long-term storage of millions of currently unavailable data sets.
Thanks to the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, the virtuous insurgency is underway, providing innovative solutions today and growing to address tomorrow’s challenges.