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Silicon Valley and the DoD: How an innovative fellowship program helps bridge the gap between the two

The 21 Total Force Airmen who participated in the inaugural AFVentures Fellowship earlier this year. (Courtesy graphic)

The 21 Total Force Airmen who participated in the inaugural AFVentures Fellowship earlier this year. (Courtesy graphic)

Fellows take part in a meeting with Brian O’Malley, a partner at Forerunner Ventures in San Francisco, in March. (Maj. Stacie N. Shafran)

Fellows take part in a meeting with Brian O’Malley, a partner at Forerunner Ventures in San Francisco, in March. (Maj. Stacie N. Shafran)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

Reserve Citizen Airmen are playing a vital role in a bold new fellowship program designed to accelerate innovation for the Department of Defense by embedding some of the military’s best and brightest within venture capital firms and technology startups in Silicon Valley.

Reserve Maj. Tony Perez and Maj. Adam Welch came up with the idea for the AFVentures Fellowship program while working for AFWERX, the Air Force’s “catalyst for agile Air Force engagement across industry, academia and nontraditional contributors to create transformative opportunities and foster an Air Force culture of innovation.”

Like most AFWERX initiatives, the AFVentures Fellowship program developed quickly.

“We started this in October 2019,” Perez said. “We had our first applicants in November and the first fellowship actually started in February of this year. We were very quickly able to turn around a group of fellows and match them to companies. We’ve been working at light speed and, so far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Perez said the idea for the fellowship program was relatively simple. 

“AFWERX is doing a lot of work with nontraditional companies, really trying to bring leading-edge technology into the DoD,” he said. “We know we have technology capability gaps internally within the DoD, and we think there are companies and organizations on the outside who can solve them; but there really is no cross-pollination between these two communities. We set out to create a program that does that cross-pollination, exposes and builds competencies about leading-edge tech to our service members, and rekindles those relationships between the start-up and venture capital communities that have access to leading-edge tech and the DoD community.”

Perez said the AFVentures Fellowship program is doing all of those things, but it’s also produced an unexpected benefit.

“What we’ve seen after the first couple of fellowship cohorts is that they are helping to break down the stovepipes that exist within the DoD. The networks these fellows created among themselves is almost as powerful as the connections between the DoD and the industry segment,” he said.

There have been three AFVentures Fellowship cohorts so far this year, where up to 21 people from the DoD have spent two months embedded in Silicon Valley tech startups or venture capital firms.

The initial cohort was done in-person. The two that followed were done virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the first three cohorts were venture capital/tech startup-focused. The fourth one, slated for October and November, was focused on cyber. Welch said there are plans to do a senior leader-focused cohort in the near future.

Lt. Col. Christopher (C.J.) Johnson, the senior individual mobilization augmentee to the director of the Space and Missiles System Center’s Cross-Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, spent two months embedded in Lux Capital this summer as part of the AFVentures Fellowship program. Lux is a venture capital firm that specializes in investing in emerging science and technology companies “at the outermost edges of what is possible.” It looks for entrepreneurs who challenge the status quo and the laws of nature to bring their futuristic ideas to life.

“It was a priceless opportunity to get to know not only the partners at this venture capital firm, but also the key founders of some of the most innovative technology companies out there,” Johnson said.

“For example, I had the opportunity to meet one of the co-founders of Anduril, a startup firm that is focused on full-stack counter UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) capabilities,” he said. “They manufacture and develop small counter UAVs, to include the fabrication and operating firmware. They are becoming a very important vendor for the DoD. The fellowship really helps bridge the gap between the DoD and these startups. These companies want to know about the DoD and they want to know how to become a better partner, but they don’t really know where to start. This program helps us demystify some of the impressions that both sides have and helps us get on the same page. It’s kind of like being an interpreter because we’re speaking two different languages.”

In addition to helping create the AFVentures Fellowship program, Welch participated in the program this summer when he spent two months embedded in Shift, a startup company focused on helping veterans transition from the military to the civilian sector. Shift received a Small Business Innovation Research Program award to help AFWERX build and run the fellowship.

“With my role at AFWERX, it was really eye opening to see a startup from the inside out,” Welch said. “I got to see some of the pain points and see that it’s very similar to AFWERX in that with a small number of people, everybody has to pull their weight. To be a part of their team and see how everybody is moving in the same direction was really powerful.”

He said another beneficial part of his fellowship was getting to know some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists.

“Throughout the fellowship, we had one-hour fireside chats with some of the top venture capitalists in the country,” he said. “What was eye opening is that they were just as motivated to learn from us as we were from them. They are all very supportive of the military and want to build that partnership. The relationship between the DoD and the venture capital community in Silicon Valley goes all the way back to World War II. Over the years, the two sides have grown apart, but everybody wants to find a way to bring that relationship back. We’re at a point where we’re beginning to do that.”

Welch said one of the great things about the AFVentures Fellowship program is that it’s not limited by Air Force Specialty Code, rank, status or service.

“The program is open to everyone – officers, enlisted, civilians, Guard and Reserve from all of the services,” he said. “We want a melting pot of backgrounds, not just acquisition officers, to carry a depth of perspectives into the venture capital world, but also take back what they learn to their units.”

Johnson said he thinks the program is particularly well suited for Reserve Citizen Airmen.

“Reservists already have civilian sector or public sector lives away from the military so they can be especially helpful in building these bridges between the DoD and these venture capital and tech startup firms,” he said. “I truly believe this has the opportunity to be one of the most important initiatives for the Reserve because it speaks to General Scobee and Chief White’s call for people to be bold leaders and out-of-the-box thinkers. Reserve Citizen Airmen who are exposed to these innovative technology companies are uniquely positioned to come back and help the command reach its goals of prioritizing strategic depth, developing resilient leaders and reforming the organization.”

For more information on the AFVentures Fellowship program, check out https://www.afwerx.af.mil/afventures.html or  https://www.shift.org/afv. #ReserveReform         ■