The U.S. military and Silicon Valley have what can be described as a “unique” partnership. The military has always been at the forefront when it comes to developing new technology – and countless innovations from sonar to radar to lasers have their respective roots in military labs. Today DARPA and the Office of Naval Research continue to work with technology partners.
At the same time, the scientific community – which shouldn’t be seen as being exactly the same as the tech world – has viewed the military with some suspicion due to how the military has employed technology. Now thanks to a recent initiative, the connection between the military and technology has been strengthened. This year the inaugural AFVentures Fellowship brought together 21 U.S. Air Force Airmen for a six-week immersion with technology and venture capital firms in San Francisco.
It’s a Collaborative Venture
AFVentures is an ongoing collaboration. Air Force Acquisition oversees the Air Force research development, acquisition and program sustainment activities. The Air Force’s AFWERX program fosters a culture of innovation within the service.Lastly, Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program make the connections with startups or small businesses.
The recent fellows were trained in investment and risk management to strengthen their ability to develop and deliver essential capabilities to the Air Force’s mission. The program ran from February 10 to March 20.
“In addition to the government, venture capitalists and investors are a key component of accelerating innovation in sectors we rely on to accomplish our mission,” said Maj. Tony Perez, AFWERX Spark Cell lead. “To better collaborate and understand the different roles we play, we need Airmen who understand the world of startups, investing and technological advancement.”
Those taking part in the program were competitively selected in order to create a diverse mix of officers, enlisted and civilians from across the active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard. The individuals came from a variety of Air Force mission sets including cyber, space, intelligence, special operations, legislative affairs and software development.
The fellows were embedded with a specific organization where they received first-hand experience in the private sector. That was augmented by weekly education sessions, group projects and even reading assignments.
A Strategic Shift
To help ensure that Airmen will be able to speak the language of entrepreneurship, Maj. Perez enlisted the help of Shift, a San Francisco-based development company that supports career shifts for military veterans. In May, the company was tentatively selected as one of the first to receive the Air Force’s Strategy Fund Increase (STRATFI) Award, which would allow Shift to open AFVentures Fellowship to more than 1,000 Department of Defense (DoD) personnel over the next four years.
In addition, Shift has set a goal to expand to new industry verticals, extend to new technology hubs beyond Silicon Valley, and to integrate emerging business and technology focus areas such as venture capital (VC), cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI) and logistics.
“The Air Force recognizes that in order to be a leader in research and development, it has to have a technologically proficient workforce,” said Mike Slagh, a U.S. Navy veteran CEO and founder of Shift. “The AFVentures Fellowship was designed to develop and retain the top talent the Air Force needs to achieve its mission, as well as develop meaningful, personal relationships across industry. The STRATFI expansion will allow us to extend this opportunity across the Department of Defense.”
Building the Public-Private Partnership
While the program was meant to help the Airmen learn from their experience, it also ensured that venture capital partners were exposed to renewed possibilities to engage with DoD initiatives and priorities – and to increase collaboration between the often different worlds while accelerating national innovation.
“Silicon Valley was built on a foundation of public-private partnerships between the national security and technology communities,” said Jake Chapman, AlphaBridge co-founder and managing partner. “As we enter a new era of great power competition, it is absolutely vital we rebuild broken bridges.”