Why the defense industry could be a transformative market for startups

At a time when younger firms wrestle to seek out expertise sectors not dominated by Silicon Valley’s giants, most startups stay oblivious to considered one of the largest markets in the world, the U.S. Defense Division. The navy awarded $445 billion in contracts in 2020. By comparability, final yr’s international market for software-as-a-service, considered one of the hottest sectors for startup creation and funding, was estimated at $104 billion.

There’s a keen market right here, too. The Pentagon is eager for help from the nation’s innovators. The navy is clamoring for cutting-edge applied sciences in areas like synthetic intelligence, machine studying, and autonomy. To draw curiosity the Defense Division is handing out unprecedented numbers of small contracts and in 2020 seeded 1,635 corporations with greater than $1.5 billion in early funding. Dozens of outreach applications throughout the navy now provide fast income to early-stage firms. A startup could land a contract worth up to $3 million inside months of getting into the defense market.

This rising alternative displays the urgency of holding tempo with rivals like China and Russia, who’re furiously integrating industrial applied sciences like AI, quantum computing, and unmanned techniques into their armed forces. If former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s prediction about China overtaking the United States in AI involves cross, the Folks’s Liberation Military could be higher ready than the U.S. navy for future conflicts by which cyberattacks and drone swarms play a bigger position than warships and fighter jets. With out adopting cutting-edge industrial applied sciences, the U.S. navy might be rendered out of date.

But, for each newly minted success like Palantir or Anduril, hundreds of firms wrestle to seek out follow-on alternatives after receiving early innovation contracts. Traditionally, greater than 80% of new entrants exit the defense market earlier than they’ve a probability to see recurring income. Anduril founder Palmer Luckey has sardonically noted that the solely defense firms to achieve unicorn standing in the previous 30 years have all been based by billionaires capable of endure lengthy gaps in funding. To really compete with technologically superior rivals, the Defense Division will in the end must allow a broad pool of revolutionary founders to succeed. Till this ecosystem materializes, nevertheless, constructing a profitable defense enterprise is more likely to take years of grueling effort. Earlier than committing to work with the navy, startups should look previous the attract of early cash and thoroughly assess whether or not the defense market is true for them.

The important thing questions for startups

Regardless of the Pentagon’s newfound enthusiasm for innovation, startups in the defense market proceed to come across longstanding obstacles. Most firms face uncertainty when attempting to bridge prototyping awards with extra everlasting follow-on contracts. Startups that efficiently fulfill innovation contracts don’t routinely scale. As an alternative, their options should nonetheless compete for funding in a formal budgeting and acquisition process earlier than being eligible for widespread adoption. This ordeal takes two years or more, throughout which startups ought to anticipate little or no income as they attempt to push their product by way of the paperwork.

Whereas incomes the first $1 million in the defense market can be comparatively simple, touchdown the subsequent $10 million is extraordinarily troublesome. Earlier than committing to work with the navy, startups ought to rigorously contemplate whether or not the defense market is true for them by asking three questions.

Is there robust curiosity for the product? People who provide options to high-priority issues have the finest probability of sourcing funding and follow-on awards. Startups ought to assess how nicely their applied sciences align with the wants outlined in the defense finances, various modernization strategies, and issues posed by defense innovation hubs. For instance, “flying taxi” startup Joby Aviation aligned its electrical vertical takeoff and touchdown plane with the Air Power’s stated interest in advancing the market for air mobility autos. The 3D mapping firm Hivemapper found traction with the Army by focusing on its must autonomously resupply field artillery units.

Is the firm ready to endure income gaps? As famous, firms might go years with out defense income whereas attempting to bridge early contracts with bigger alternatives. Throughout this era, startups might want to maintain enterprise improvement actions and should incur additional regulatory and compliance costs to make sure their product is usable by the navy. Buyers are additionally more likely to specific impatience with the lengthy timelines of defense gross sales. The most effective ready firms can both increase adequate funds to maintain working or depend on income from different sources. Palmer Luckey’s Anduril has aggressively pursued financing to maintain progress. Lately public enterprise-AI agency C3.ai entered the defense market having already constructed a successful commercial business in the power vertical. Equally, 3D-printing homebuilder Icon‘s applied sciences have purposes that stretch nicely past nationwide safety use instances to industrial housing markets.

Can I steadiness the wants of my defense and industrial clients? The most effective-positioned startups clear up essentially related issues for each navy and industrial customers. Satellite tv for pc imagery agency Orbital Perception‘s Go platform, for instance, automates imagery evaluation for defense analysts, buyers, and agribusiness alike. Some quantity of customization is inevitable on condition that navy customers typically have particular mission necessities or technical constraints. Nevertheless, firms that may serve navy clients with out essentially altering their present product roadmap are more likely to be most profitable.

Incidents like Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven have highlighted the potential for battle when industrial firms resolve to work with the navy. This pressure tends to be decrease at startups the place an early staff willingly indicators on to pursue defense enterprise. Regardless, firms ought to be conscious of the reputational impacts working with the DoD could have on their present enterprise.

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The case for optimism

Firms eyeing the defense market have motive to be optimistic. There are a rising variety of efforts to take away obstacles to partnerships between high-tech startups and the navy. For instance, the Air Power final yr created the Strategic Financing (STRATFI) program. STRATFI offers the Air Power’s most promising industrial innovators, a checklist which incorporates Icon and Orbital Perception, fast entry to massive contracts price as much as $15 million. One other constructive signal is President Biden’s nomination of former Symantec CEO Mike Brown to supervise the Pentagon’s purchases of new technologies. As director of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), Brown has spearheaded investments in industrial applied sciences and helped C3.ai, Joby Aviation, and different Silicon Valley standouts navigate funding gaps. If confirmed, Brown could speed up a lot wanted reforms to navy acquisition processes.

A startup that makes it by way of the hurdles might discover a huge market with a steady set of shoppers keen for higher expertise options. The U.S. authorities pays its payments on time, defense budgets are shielded from short-term volatility, and contracts might be assured for a number of years. As soon as onboarded, navy customers can shortly grow to be long-term clients given the challenges concerned with switching to a different product. Firms that rigorously contemplate the choice to enter the defense market and brace themselves for the challenges forward could entry transformative alternatives in coming years.


Mrinal Menon is a former administration/technique marketing consultant who has led progress efforts at a number of enterprise capital-backed defense startups. He’s an MBA candidate at Stanford’s Graduate Faculty of Enterprise the place he conducts analysis on nationwide safety, expertise, and innovation. He’s a former U.S. Navy Floor Warfare Officer.

Jeff Decker, PhD, is program director of the Hacking for Defense Venture at Stanford College’s Precourt Institute of Vitality and is a co-instructor of the Hacking for Defense class. His analysis focuses on creating go-to-defense market methods for startups and enhancing Defense Division outreach to the industrial sector. He’s an Military Second Ranger Battalion veteran.