Why the Air Force has its own venture capital fund

p 1 air force venture capital silicon valley afventures

The Protection Division is making an attempt to resume its as soon as strong relationship with Silicon Valley to search out the applied sciences wanted to confront Twenty first-century threats. The Air Force is taking the novel strategy of creating a venture capital agency inside its ranks that locates, invests in, and opens doorways for promising protection startups.

AFVentures is a division of an Air Force know-how acquisition and growth group known as AFWerx (the AF stands for Air Force and Werx is shorthand for “work undertaking”) established in 2017. AFWerx is one thing like the Protection Innovation Unit (DIU) inside the DOD, which started trying into the non-public sector for promising protection applied sciences again in 2015.

For a few years the DOD has relied mainly on applied sciences developed both inside the authorities or by a small group of huge contractors reminiscent of Boeing or Raytheon. There’s a rising perception inside protection circles that to handle the new nontraditional and cyberwarfare threats on the horizon, the U.S. must faucet into the cutting-edge innovation taking place outdoors these universes.


Sidestepping the ‘Valley of Demise’

One in all the greatest issues AFVentures does is assist small startups survive the brutal technique of qualifying for a protection contract.

The DOD’s procurement course of is legendary for its complexity and slowness. It’s a five-phase affair that begins with know-how evaluation, then strikes to product prototyping, then engineering and manufacturing, then manufacturing and deployment, and ends with operations and assist—and that’s if the undertaking isn’t rejected or starved of funding. It’s a mind-numbingly labyrinthine system clogged with crimson tape and paperwork. Bigger contractors have giant staffs of individuals to wade by way of the course of, however smaller tech firms face an actual problem managing all the work.

Which means a smaller startup would possibly do a profitable pilot undertaking for a department of the navy however then parish whereas ready for a sustainable long-term contract to materialize. That interim interval is thought in contractor circles as the “valley of demise.” Consequently, many tech startups don’t even have a look at protection as a goal market.

One more reason to disregard the chance of presidency contracts is the manner the venture capital enterprise is about up. Venture capital corporations sometimes search for firms with high-margin merchandise that may develop shortly to supply a return that’s 10 to twenty instances the VC’s funding. Startups targeted on supplying the authorities don’t match that mould. Consequently, many applied sciences that would assist in protection stay confined to make use of in shopper or industrial settings.

It’s an issue of which the navy is acutely conscious. To assist a startup survive the valley of demise, AFVentures would possibly award the firm a growth contract. Since its 2018 inception, it has awarded $710 million in contracts to greater than 1,400 small firms, in line with its annual report. Or it’d attempt to discover the startup some further capital in the non-public fairness world.

As soon as engaged with a startup, AFVentures might help minimize by way of a few of the crimson tape concerned with authorities contracting, says the director of the program, Main Jason Rathje. It additionally helps startups fulfill the authorities’s necessities, reminiscent of cybersecurity requirements.

AFVentures has quite a lot of methods of discovering funding for startups, whether or not the startup is doing an preliminary pilot or is actively upgrading or scaling a product to suit the authorities’s necessities. In a single program, known as Strategic Fund Improve, AFVentures can match a specific amount of funding that the startup has already acquired from a non-public investor. Or, it’d match the quantity of a DOD contract the startup has already received.


The massive image behind AFVentures is that the U.S. has a brand new sort of enemy in the Twenty first century. Non-state terror teams are not the primary goal, as the U.S. faces rising threats from China and Russia. The Chinese language authorities particularly has entry to the work of homegrown know-how builders. Individuals in the protection group have come to comprehend that if the U.S. can’t discover a strategy to accomplice as carefully with its own home tech firms, it might fall behind as warfare in the Twenty first century goes excessive tech.

Constructing for presidency and past

Whereas AFVentures is a strategic transfer for the navy, it additionally offers a brand new alternative for startups that aren’t relying solely on authorities contracts to maintain themselves, and are additionally constructing know-how for enterprises or customers.

“A large portion of our funding is on this dual-use strategy to know-how growth,” Rathje says.

AFVentures is continually combing the startup panorama for firms constructing know-how that matches the current or future wants of the Air Force. Rathje tells me he talks to non-public sector VC folks 5 instances per week.

“On our facet, discovering that overlap, understanding the place the industrial markets are going, understanding the place the sensible capital goes, the place the Air Force desires to go, after which making an attempt to take a position the place there’s overlap creates a possibility for dual-use [companies],” Rathje says.

The federal government funding from AFVentures could make startups look extra engaging to non-public traders, too. AFVentures’s portfolio firms have acquired $2.22 billion in non-public sector funding after receiving funding from contract awards.

“It’s good—they’ve discovered easy methods to make their cash go additional,” says Brandon Tseng, CEO and cofounder of the protection AI firm Defend AI, a AFVentures portfolio firm. “They’re bringing more cash to the desk for focusing on priorities and capabilities that may matter to the Air Force.”