Five Elements of Successful Startup Engagement from the US Air Force

By Kaitlin Milliken |  June 18, 2019

While most organizations understand that there’s value to be found in the startup ecosystem, the perfect formula for a startup program with impact remains elusive.

Captain Steve Lauver, Director of Technology Accelerators, AFWERX

However, according to Steve Lauver, a Captain in the US Air Force, there are five key factors that can pave the way for faster progress.

One of them is lining up a funding partner that has a problem in need of a solution. It helps immeasurably, Lauver explains, to have “an organization that says, “I have a real problem. I’ve got funding to solve it, if you can find there’s a solution.”

Lauver is the Director of Technology Accelerators for AFWERX, a program that seeks to spark innovation within the US Air Force. Lauver oversees AFWERX’s accelerator, which links up active duty Air Force, Reserve Air Force, contracted personnel, and startups to take on complex problems.

During a conversation with InnoLead, Lauver discussed the importance of creating an ecosystem to foster startup relationships, how his team chooses partners, and his advice for other innovators in government. (This interview also appears in our Q2 2019 research report, “Startup Engagement: Best Practices for Large Organizations.”)

The Five Elements of a Successful Startup Program

In order for an innovation cell to exist within any organization, there needs to be a couple of stakeholders aligned. We call it the five-node process or the five-node approach. …

The first and most important node is what we think of as the entrepreneur. That’s the person who has the idea… They’re the one who is passionate about solving a problem and who understands the problem. …

The second one is leadership buy-in or top cover. If you’re doing something differently or against the grain, you will hit barriers. Having leadership in your court having your back is so important for greasing the skids and removing those barriers when they pop up. …

The next one is, in my opinion, the unsung heroes in many cases. That’s the contract and legal support. … It’s the lawyers who are saying, “Is this legal, ethical, etc. or not?” We need to have them aligned from the beginning of any new project all the way through to the end. If we don’t, they’re going to become one of those barriers that we have to figure out a way around or to work with.

Four is a funding partner. Whenever we take on a project, we want to follow an actual real problem. … Having an organization that says, “I have a real problem. I’ve got funding to solve it, if you can find there’s a solution.”

The last one is the actual solution. [I]t’s either a technology solution or some kind of policy solution.

Working with Startups: a Push and Pull Relationship

There’s the push relationship and the pull relationship. The push is, “Hey, we found a technology out there that we didn’t know we needed. … But now that we’ve found it, I need it.” That’s the push.

The goals for the push are just be open to being pleasantly surprised by what you find. The mechanisms by which we’re targeting those [are the] dual-use SBIR classes [Small Business Innovation Research, a program that encourages domestic small businesses to collaborate on federal R&D] and this technology accelerator.

We are not defining a very specific vertical that we need solved. We’re just saying, “If you have a commercial technology…” For the accelerator, [the technology can be] immature. For the SBIR, it’s a little bit more mature. “If you have a commercial technology that might be useful to the Air Force, then apply to this program.” That allows us to be pleasantly surprised. …

The second piece is the pull relationship. We also want to have a mechanism by which we can harvest the solutions that are out there around a certain problem area. The way that we do that is, when we are doing our outreach for the accelerator, when we are doing our outreach for this SBIR open dual-use topic…we do post specific things to it.

We say, “Look, if you happen to solve one of these 40 problems, you’re solving a real problem for the user, and your customer is built in already when you do your customer exploration.” We do have a mechanism by which we can get specific solutions to user problems.

We collect those user problems in a number of ways. We have an internal ideation platform that we use that anyone in the Air Force can get an account on. They can just submit their problems to us…

I say, “Hey, if someone can create an autonomous cargo loader for X, Y, or Z purpose, then I will consider buying it.” We pushed that out there to the entire startup world to see if there’s any solution.

Define the Problem — Not the Solutions

We had a tendency to — and this is across the world, not just in the government — see a problem and then to say what we think the solution is, instead of just seeing the problem. Here’s an example we often repeat. …

If we want to see over a hill for whatever military purpose, we have a tendency to say, ‘Look, I need you guys to create me a satellite that’s going to be in geo orbit. It’s going to have these specifications.’ Very specific, and, in reality, we just wanted to see over the hill. We don’t care if they come back with a hot air balloon or a carrier pigeon with a camera on it.

If they can give us the most affordable, most effective solution, whatever that looks like, that’s great. Shifting towards a culture of telling companies our problems and less so what we think the solutions look like is going to help solve that problem. …

Advice for Other Innovators in Government

The first one would be, “Come talk to us,” for sure. Come talk to anyone that’s done it before, because we make so many mistakes. We make tons of mistakes. We’re fortunate to have a culture from leadership down that says, “It’s OK to make mistakes. Just fix them fast, and move forward…”

The second, I’ll say, is just get good people and put them in a room and don’t over control them. There’s an “It factor” when you’re talking to people in any organization, but especially in the Department of Defense, or in any particular service.

When you talk to somebody, you say, “Wow, this person is inspired. They get it. They want to make a difference.” … Get a small group together and then just start to talk about it. It’s like primordial soup. You just get the right people together, and something good will happen.

Be open to being pleasantly surprised by what your people in your organization come up with. Don’t ever over control. Get the right people together. Then come to us if you want to figure out how not to make stupid mistakes the first time around.