USAFE airmen work with industry in joint Defense Ventures Program

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Dwight Rabe

Three airmen from U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa participated in the Shift Defense Ventures Program as DOD fellows hosted by venture capital firms and emerging technology companies, Feb. 1 – March 26, 2021.

Since its founding as the AFVentures Fellowship in 2020, the Defense Ventures Program has established an alumni of 115 DOD employees, both military and civilian, among six cohorts. The program is managed in partnership with AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Air Force, and designed for all DOD component employees.

AFVentures is the commercial investment arm of the Air Force, which creates simple pathways for commercial innovators and private capital investment to help the Department of the Air Force solve problems. Their mission is to leverage commercial technology to deliver better capability to the warfighter, faster.

“The future of defense technology development is public-private partnerships, and for that to succeed, the U.S. military needs a force of technically proficient members who can fully leverage the innovation of American’s commercial sector to protect the homeland,” said Mike Slagh, Shift CEO. “The initiatives that AFWERX are pursuing to develop the Air Force’s human capital workforce, like Shift’s Defense Ventures, have already had far reaching effects in forging relationship with the technology sector in the United States.”

Over the course of eight weeks, fellows received first-hand experience with the commercial industry while working to solve real-world problems and gaining exposure to new organizational methods. The program also enables fellows the chance to educate industry counterparts about the military, in turn helping the DOD improve as a customer in defense innovation.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dwight Rabe, USAFE-AFAFRICA chief of aviation safety division, immersed with Catapult Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture fund that focuses on early-stage, hardware technology businesses. This opportunity offered a glimpse of advance technology solutions to lingering everyday problems.

“The opportunity to explore my questions about business, private and public partnerships, venture investing, defense priorities, and revolutionary technology was invaluable,” said Rabe. “I plan to leverage this experience for the Air Force, searching for new risk opportunities while he currently leads aviation safety initiatives to support the wings of USAFE-AFAFRICA and 3rd Air Force.”

Catapult, founded by two tech entrepreneurs, oversees a diverse portfolio of 16 companies with applications in aviation, space, manufacturing, advanced sensors, surveillance, and agriculture, fielding products that exploit new technologies in robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomy.

During the fellowship, the Catapult general partners relied on Rabe to help manage deal flow by analyzing academic market reports from business schools and pitch decks from new companies seeking seed investments of approximately $1 million. His analysis informed the Catapult founders’ decision process about agreeing to hear pitch briefings from these new companies, and further inform their process to decide whether or not to invest in them.

“I learned about the dynamics of venture investing, the rapid operating pace of technology companies, and the importance of defining specific problems to make the best case for an innovative solution,” said Rabe. 

Capt. John Garrison, F-16 Fighting Falcon evaluation pilot and 555th Fighter Squadron chief of standardization and evaluation, immersed with Moonshots Capital, whose investment thesis centers on supporting teams that exhibit extraordinary leadership with special interest in veteran-owned companies. 

“Going from a subject matter expert in the F-16 to a venture capital firm where I had to look up 55.5% of the terms used has been a steep learning curve,” said Garrison. “The program has felt like a fire hose designed to immerse participants in their company and the technology industry… to forge a new focus and understanding of greater defense priorities.”

Capt. Adrian Herrera, F-15E Strike Eagle instructor weapons system officer and 494th Fighter Squadron director of staff, immersed with Major League Hacking, which operates an international league of student hackathons. Their mission is to cultivate communities and teach computer science skills with outreach to more than 65,000 students.

“There are significant soft skills that I learned with MLH that I plan to bring back to my squadron, operations group and fighter wing here at Royal Air Force Lakenheath.”

Herrera leveraged his research on public-private partnerships from previous education to assist his hosts at MLH. Observing the unique efficiency of MLH staff meetings, Herrera plans to apply the knowledge learned to workflow efficiency in his squadron. Looking ahead, Herrera hopes to sponsor a team of MLH hackers to assist RAF Lakenheath’s operations group by assessing the flying support software platforms for possible digitization opportunities.

Around the world, the emerging technology community continues to develop dual-use technologies with commercial and defense applications. The persistent challenge is to identify and best support the commercial companies that are willing to work with the DOD toward new programs of record.

“I am convinced that if we are going to win America’s next war, it will not be won with technology in which we write internal development requirements,” Garrison explained. “It will be won with technology we see in industry, rapidly capture, and adapt to the military.”

Shift’s Defense Ventures Program continues to open doors to these conversations, curating prominent speakers from across Silicon Valley and the DOD about the innovation ecosystem.

“This program is at the heart of AFWERX's goal to enact CSAF Brown's vision of Accelerating Change or Lose in the Air Force by empowering Airmen to collaborate with joint personnel and partner with industry to solve problems at the lowest level,” said Capt. Garrett Custons, AFWERX spark cell director. “We've seen tremendous success from DVP to date and are excited to expand the program and see what future problems we'll be able to tackle."