The U.S. military usually develops its advanced technology in classified labs staffed by gigantic defense companies. But as the Pentagon looks for new ways to reach out to Silicon Valley, some unexpected characters are getting a shot at the action.
The Defense Department’s Hacking for Defense program (which, despite its H4D handle, does not focus on cybersecurity) is a graduate school course designed to let students invent new products for the military. Students without security clearances — including some foreign nationals — are put to work on unclassified versions of real-world problems faced by military and intelligence agencies.
A Pentagon-funded unit called the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, which coordinates it all behind the scenes, gives students a modest budget to try to solve military problems using off-the-shelf products.
After a test run at Stanford University last spring, the accelerator is starting similar courses at least a dozen universities. The University of Pittsburgh, University of California at San Diego, James Madison University and Georgetown University are among those trying to replicate Stanford’s success.
To spearhead its effort, Georgetown hired a former Special Operations Marine with a deep Rolodex and a long history of doing business with the Pentagon.
Chris Taylor’s first career had him jumping out of airplanes and serving on hostage rescue teams as part of the Marine Force Recon unit, an elite intelligence-gathering team tasked with “deep reconnaissance” missions in dangerous combat zones.
He became an instructor in the unit’s amphibious reconnaissance school, where he taught enlisted Marines skills such as how to covertly approach military installations from the sea and survive undetected in the wilderness.
“He’s been good at teaching, leading and just selling ideas for a long time,” said Bob Fawcett, a retired Marine who worked with Taylor at the Force Recon training program.
Taylor spent evenings studying accounting as he worked toward a college degree, the first step in a lucrative career on the business side of the Bush administration’s military buildup.
He became a top executive at Blackwater Worldwide, the private security firm that was at the forefront of a booming mercenary industry working in Iraq and Afghanistan, until its reputation took a turn for the worse over a deadly shooting involving its employees that launched a congressional inquiry and was eventually ruled a criminal offense.
He served at private security firm DynCorp and founded a small but profitable company called Novitas Group, which handled job placement for Veterans.
His next challenge: helping Georgetown’s students navigate the Pentagon.
One team of students in Taylor’s class is working for the Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, a Pentagon sub-agency, to find new ways to track social unrest in crowded foreign cities by mining Twitter and Facebook. Another group of students is trying to combine augmented reality technology with advanced facial recognition software, hoping to build something that would allow U.S. forces to constantly scan crowds for individuals known to be a threat. Another team is looking for ways to counter the off-the-shelf drone fleets that the Islamic State claims to employ.
“This is like the greatest educational experience you could possibly have if you’re interested in national security,” Taylor said.
The program’s managers in the government say the main point is to familiarize techies with the Pentagon’s mission, but their trial run at Stanford also showed a degree of success in spinning off businesses.
In Stanford’s trial run, four out of eight student teams raised additional money, either from the government or from private investors, to continue their work beyond the course.
One is a satellite imaging company called Capella Space. The company’s founders had initially hoped to sell satellite imaging services to government space agencies, but pivoted toward the private sector after interviewing more than 150 industry experts as part of Stanford’s course.
“We realized that if you really want to work with the government in what you’re doing, they want you to be a commercial company — with commercial revenue — and they want to be a subscriber to your service,” said company founder Payam Banazadeh.
Capella Space has a satellite launch planned for the end of year, which it hopes will be the first step in sending 36 shoebox-size satellites into space. The company is funding it with an undisclosed amount of venture capital raised from Silicon Valley Venture investors including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.
It remains to be seen whether efforts at other universities will have the same success.
Even before Georgetown’s class launched, for example, the university’s strengths and limitations were already on display. Georgetown is known for deep connections to the Washington establishment but is overshadowed by other elite universities in certain technical disciplines. It does not have an engineering school, for instance.
One of the problem sets that the government sent for Georgetown students to work on would be on an unclassified basis for the National Security Agency, following in a Stanford team’s footsteps.
Taylor touted the opportunity to work with the NSA in seminars advertising the course, but couldn’t find a group of students that he thought had enough technical knowledge to take on the challenge.
But those who did join Taylor’s course are making early progress. Just a few weeks into the program, students looking for a way to track terrorists using social media had come up with a prototype that they coded on their own.
The group spent the class working through ways of quickly translating posts from Arabic and more easily geo-locating individual tweets and Facebook posts. Taylor wondered aloud whether the system might be enhanced if they paid social-media users small sums of money for what details they knew about the posts.
Next, he wants to open the course to other Washington-area universities, poaching engineering students from rival colleges around the region.
“Imagine what we can achieve when [national capital region] universities band together with a unity of effort toward national security problem solving,” he said in an email.
“It. will. be. awesome.”