Disruptive Change with Joseph Kopser

Joseph Kopser, technology entrepreneur and president of consulting firm Grayline Group, joins ACME General Corp. to talk about disruptive change, technology innovation, and the national security implications of adapting to that innovation.

Joseph Kopser is a US Army combat veteran with 20 years of service who went on to co-found a company that later sold to Mercedes. He has run for Congress, served as an Executive-in-Residence at UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, and authored the book Catalyst. Joseph is now a public speaker, technology entrepreneur, expert in transportation, and president of Grayline Group, where he helps companies and institutions manage disruptive change.

ACME General: My guest today is Joseph Kopser. He’s an Army combat vet with 20 years of service, who went on to found a technology company that was acquired by Mercedes. He has advised a number of organizations about meeting innovation challenges of the future. And he’s the president of Grayline, where he helps companies and public institutions manage disruptive change. Joseph, welcome to Accelerate Defense. 

Joseph Kopser: Ken, it’s great to be here. I’m a fan of your podcast, so it’s a thrill to be part of it. 

ACME General: Let’s talk about that disruptive change. It seems like every week there is another technology that threatens to upend the way business works, whether it’s something in the IT realm – AI, of course, is capturing every headline – or in mobility. Your background thinking of autonomous vehicles. How does our mindset, both in the military space and in the business leader space need to shift to anticipate disruption broadly, because focusing on every narrow technological development that would overwhelm us, no one can be an expert in everything. How do we adapt more broadly to the inevitable disruption? 

JK: That’s a great question. I think the way you adapt to change is not to think of it as change in and of itself, but to think of it as the rate of change and how new technologies build on top of each other. And so you have step functions that are happening even faster and for people to wrap their brain around, oh, it’s not just change, but it’s change happening even faster because people fall victim to an amateur view of history to think, oh, well, if the typewriter came out here, I got about 20 years before this job is this. And computers, we got about ten years for this. No, we’re talking about companies right now that have about 1 or 2 years to adapt to, like you said, AI, large language models, or they’re going to be eliminated. Just think of something as simple as the modeling- I mean, this is about defense technology, but if you’re right now in the modeling and photography world, you are at real risk of being disrupted in a way, because you don’t have to hire a model anymore. And travel, food, and hotel. You can do an AI generated image and just think what that will do to combat and what that will do to how bad guys find us and how we find them. So it’s not just change, it’s the rate of change that is the hardest thing for people to wrap their brain around. 

ACME General: Well, I want to talk about the stakes because you started by alluding to company profitability and job displacement. But when we’re talking about the national security implications of adapting to innovation, we’re talking about, in some cases, national survival and certainly the economic, health and the security of a nation. I mean, I’m all for the focus on job creation and company profitability, but the stakes are enormous when we’re talking about some of these technologies in the national security sphere. 

JK: Yeah. And I, you know, for regular listeners to your podcast, they’ll know you’ve had some guests on before that alluded to that. And I think what’s so important is and maybe this is a benefit, not just in importance, but if we don’t get this right, we will not enjoy the liberties of democracy. We will not enjoy the liberties of freedom. We could take serious steps back. And I’m not just talking about our current political context. I’m talking about what happens if the Chinese get to a point where they can use crypto, you know, use quantum physics to be able to do encryption faster than we can. Therefore, every single state secret we’ve ever had, from the nuclear codes to how we build bombs, will be in the hands of governments that have no problem stealing them and then using them against us. And so, yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. This is existential in many ways. 

ACME General: Can you give us some on the ground examples of these threats that a lot of people don’t think of in the day to day, but are actually in their face in the day to day? I’m thinking about the work Grayline does in mobility and transportation, especially the need to to think about cyber when it comes to infrastructure. Yeah. 

JK: So it’s whether we talk about public transportation or we talk about individual cars, they now have so many lines of code they don’t quite approach, you know, the aircraft that you flew in the Navy. But they are indeed becoming more and more technical. And every new chip you put in every new vehicle, whether it be a car or a bus, makes that potentially any weapon. And what I mean by a weapon is if someone were able to hack through the security protocols, get in and take control of that vehicle, they could literally point it into a crowd of people and it could become a weapon. So in your every day to day, it’s as simple as your passwords, but it’s even more complex when we think about if we don’t race to get ahead of our adversaries, it could be a very bad place for us in the future. 

ACME General: There’s this phrase out there when we’re talking about these innovation arms races of winner take all technologies. Do you subscribe to that? There seems to be some fear mongering behind it. But, you know, there’s also something to it when you’re talking about something where data compounds and gives you an advantage, the more you get, the gist becomes self-reinforcing. How do you feel about these discussions around winner take all technologies?

JK: I not only agree that it’s winner take all technologies, but the one for your listeners, I will I would urge them to get into is look at quantum physics and quantum mechanics and quantum computing specifically. We’re talking about speeds that are so incredibly fast that if you took a digital computer, i.e. a computer of today with ones and zeros, and tried to hack some of the most encrypted code of today, it would take the entire history of the universe. But if you took a quantum computer to break the same encryption, they could do it in seconds, if not minutes. And for people who don’t believe me, get into the math. Look at what’s possible. And if you don’t believe that’s winner take all, unfortunately you’re on the naive side of the fence, and I’d encourage you to come over to our side of the fence, where we’re trying to create the systems and the protocol to better prevent the Chinese or the Iranians or others from having those before us and using them in nefarious ways. 

ACME General: Well, we’re not going to get into the math behind that or the physics, because I’m a history guy. But I know you’re right. That is indeed a transformational change. And once you can, you know, start breaking codes that take as much power as we have to create, it’s really tough to put, uh, the what’s the phrase, put the genie back in the lamp. That’s right. Um. That’s right. We are. We’re both vets, Joseph. We both care about America. And there are unfair advantages we have as well. I would submit that one of them is our unbridled optimism and creativity. How do you think things like that. And please add your unfair advantages to the conversation. How do you think our advantages as a nation give us an edge?

JK: The experiment of the United States of America is real, and it truly is a beacon for the rest of the world. Our unfair advantage is that we really have pursued a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the sense that countries around the world want to be here. Ronald Reagan said it so eloquently about immigration near the end of his tenure that if you move to France and become a citizen of France, you will never be French. If you move to Germany and become a citizen of Germany, you will never be German. But if you come to the States and you become an American citizen, you will also become an American. And that is powerful. That is a beacon. That is a goal that other nations around the world are fighting to have in either their own jurisdiction, their own boundaries, or they’re leaving their home and they’re coming here for that same unfair advantage, because people really can be what they want to be here in this country. The you know, the dream, the American dream is real. It is alive. And it’s what carried us through World War One, it’s what carried us through World War Two, and it is what has carried us in so many cases, especially when we get in our own way, despite ourselves to not learn the lessons of tapping in to that unbridled optimism that we get into trouble. So I wouldn’t want to live in any other country in the world in here. 

ACME General: All that is reflected in our innovation economy today as well. When you look at the number of patents that go to first generation Americans, when you look at the number of startups that are created by immigrants, I mean, that is something exceptional about our country. 

JK: Absolutely. I read somewhere – I’m off by the number, but they had a recent White House meeting with the top 20 technology company CEOs, and more than half of them were not even American born. And that says in statement, come one, come all. 

ACME General: That’s incredible. That’s incredible. You have spoken about the importance of manufacturing stateside small firms on shoring, bringing or taking advantage of that domestic talent and building things, building things here. Can you opine about the national security implications of that? 

JK: Well, the national security implications are as clear as watching what happens when a transport ship turned sideways in the Suez Canal. And then you can’t get a refrigerator in Austin, Texas. It’s that simple. We as a nation need to understand that one day it might be a refrigerator, but in the future, it might be weapons. It might be drone technology. It might be the very tools in the arsenal of democracy that we need to protect our country stateside or project that power globally. And if we cannot make it here in America, we immediately put ourselves at risk of having others hold that over us or hold us hostage because of it. The fact that Taiwan represents the majority of all chips made in the world, and it is currently right now, off the coast of a country like China that has right now plans to build islands all throughout the South China Sea to build on land planes most likely to project their own power. That is all the more reason why we should be standing up and saying make it in the U.S., every part of the supply chain we can. If we can’t make it here, make sure we’re making it with allies and partners that we know we can trust. And oh, by the way, the jobs, the opportunity, the resiliency that comes from that in our economy will have a windfall effect that goes far beyond profits. 

ACME General: Well, we have a real world example unfolding right now of that kind of supply chain vulnerability with the drone strikes in the Red sea. I would love your thoughts on – and maybe this is me being a little provocative, intentionally as a Navy guy on the importance of securing sea lanes – the importance of maintaining those supply routes, but again, reinforcing this notion that for the most critical things, we need that domestic capability. 

JK: Yeah. You know, I wish we lived in a world of sunshine and rainbows and that everybody’s saying Kumbaya and got along. But there will always be bad actors in the world, and we have to be able to be able to not only project power around the globe, but we must be able to sustain that projection and to be able to have that sustained projection, whether it be lethal munitions, whether it be non-lethal munitions or quasi like drones, as you referred to, and then, more importantly, to have the domestic capability to produce more as needed. And God forbid, if we have to get into a large land battle again with a major near peer competitor, we’re going to have to do like we did in World War Two, which is to turn automobile makers into tank makers. We turned the Heinz ketchup company into a glider company manufacturer. So I hope it never comes to that. So if people recognize that we don’t want it to get to a major land war, the best way to deter it is through strength during peacetime. And we can do that by having a more robust American manufacturing capacity, which is why companies like Sustainment, that I work with quite a bit, are a solution to that, because it’s one thing to say we want to build in the US. It’s another thing to find the people and the machinery to do that building, and that’s what they’re building at Sustainment. 

ACME General: What is the primary limiting factor in building that capacity. Is it training? Is it community colleges? Is it the availability of, you know, something like rare earth materials? I mean, are there key bottlenecks that we need to navigate? 

JK: So all those bottlenecks that you described are true and are real. But what I don’t hear mentioned enough that we need to bring into the equation is that large companies, especially, are not pricing risk correctly when it comes to supply chain vulnerability. So a quick class of 20 years ago, we said, okay, we got NAFTA and we got all these, you know, new treaties with China. We’re going to build everything overseas because all we want is the cheap product on the shelf. And no matter how cheap it is, that’s what we want because we want profits as high as possible until the port of LA is no longer functioning and capable of taking in all those goods, and then people will better be able to price and risk and supply chain resiliency. And when we can do that, which is what we talk about in our book catalyst, well, we can do that. Then you’re able to say, oh, okay, maybe it’s great to have a widget that costs $5, but if I had a widget that cost $7 and I made it here in the U.S., I’m spending $2 to be able to price in the risk to make sure that I don’t lose that widget, especially if it’s critical to our national infrastructure or supply chain to prevent any foreign adversaries from getting at us. 

ACME General: Can policy or legislation help us address that? Because there’s always going to be that pressure to race to the bottom when it comes to price. Given just how industry and the corporate world focus on the near term just reflexively. It’s how they’re wired. Can legislation help address that in some ways?

JK: So legislation policies certainly can help. And I’ll give you a metaphor. It’s not a perfect parallel. But to give an example, when we went through the banking crisis of 2008, we realized, whoa, when we combined investment firms and banks in the 80s, what we didn’t anticipate is that banks would act like investment firms, keep nothing in reserve or too little cash in reserve. And then, therefore, when there was a run on money and run on the banks, it had to be the American taxpayer to bail them out. So if we know the inevitability is that it’ll ultimately fall on the American taxpayer, let’s put in passing legislation that says to these firms and to these private companies, you have to have a certain percentage of risk properly mitigated or priced into your product, so that if there is a problem that there is a strategic imperative at risk, then you have the redundancy in your supply chain. You have the ability to be able to provide domestically what you need and not completely offshore all of your responsibility, especially if you’re getting American taxpayer dollars for the product that you’re providing, like a weapon system or munition. Hopefully that makes sense in that parallel with the banks. 

ACME General: No, it totally makes sense. Talk about Grayline. What are you doing there? 

JK: So Grayline, you know, there’s the official message that we do on the website of helping companies, but what Grayline has really become over the years as a front for our addiction to building startups. And here’s what happens. So we’re consulting group companies and groups and agencies and organizations hire us and say, come in and help us study this problem and give us some food to think about. You know, chew on to think about this problem. And we started doing it. We’re working with them and we end up going, wait a minute. That’s a real problem that a lot of people find. And so we create a startup out of it. And the best example is polonium. At polonium.com, your listeners will find an example where we first started working with the city of Columbus, not far from your hometown, where you’re taping today, and Columbus Transit Authority. Cota was doing a lot with modernization technology to bring all their buses together. And then we realized, wait, you got a lot of different systems and there are a lot of technologies. What’s the cyber risk? And then when they heard what we were doing, then the Mineta Transportation Institute out in California said, hey, here’s some money. Would you go study that problem? We produced a report for them that went nationwide, and then Jacksonville, down in Florida, wanted to put autonomous vehicles into their transit authority. So they said, wait, can you come down here and help us assess our risk in cyber? So we started working with them on that. Then the Federal Transit Authority FTA, if you go to FTA, dot gov, you’ll find a great line tool that we built for them to assess cyber risk. And then we said like any entrepreneur, wait a minute, this is not just a report, this is a business. So we created polonium and Brandon Thomas and his team there with Almiron and Chris and others are building a new company to address that problem. So Grayline is a consulting group. But don’t be surprised if out of that problem we find another one. Sustainment is another company born in the same way and we’re just helping where we can. 

ACME General: You mentioned the Mineta Transportation Institute. How do research and academic institutions factor into the industrial approach to innovation and the business approach to innovation? 

JK: They’re an absolute critical component. You couldn’t do it without academia. You have to have researchers, professors, scientists in laboratories who are going at even sometimes just the basic questions of technology and life and physics, so that we can then discover new ways of putting A and B together to get C, and without them, we wouldn’t have much of that technological, technological innovation. And then, of course, they’re only a part of the ecosystem, because then you have to have people that are driven by a mission or a cause or a passion to commercialize that new technology, to turn it into a product, to turn it into a service. And then you have to have others in government, oftentimes on really risky or really expensive projects, to say, hey, we’ll come in alongside industry and absorb a lot of that early financial risk at the reward of better community, better security. And then if private sector makes money or ends up creating new industry, that’s okay too. And your listeners know it’s everything from the internet to G.P.S. and everything else that follow that exact same pattern. So academia and nonprofits are a critical piece in this ecosystem. 

ACME General: Let’s bring it back to the defense ecosystem. You’re an advisor at UT. How do you help bridge the gap between those ever important academic institutions bringing that expertise and that bleeding edge knowledge about what’s happening in tech? How do you bridge those cultural divides between those researchers and the users in the Department of Defense down to the unit level? That soldier in the trench, who actually knows the problem, just doesn’t know how to solve it. How do you plug in there? 

JK: Well, you said it yourself with cultural differences. So I love to say that whether it’s advisory work I do with the University of Texas here in Austin or the capital factory here in the city of Austin, a lot of the work that I do is working as a cultural interpreter, but I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have in my past that background as an aerospace engineer from West Point, to have a basic understanding of the really hard technologies and sciences. I also couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have some kind of military experience, that I just hope that I had 20 years, so I had a lot of it. But then I also had in that 20 years, combat experience, and that helps to, like you say, those soldiers and being around them in the dirt, in the mud, knowing and having some familiarity with their challenges. But I’m also unique in the sense, as you know, Ken, I ran for Congress, so I spent two years out on the campaign trail like you, and understanding the complexities of government and speaking a completely different world of policy and politics. Having studied the Kennedy School. So what I do is I take all those life experiences and boil them down into becoming a cultural interpreter so I can sit in the room and hear different groups and academic talking to a lifelong soldier, talking to a young technology startup entrepreneur and say, oh, wait, here’s the common ground. Or wait, I think we’re on three different sheets of music or whatever it might look like. And I love, absolutely love bouncing around between those worlds. And that’s what Grayline became, was a permanent home for me to do that. As we work with different clients and customers, helping them solve these innovation and cultural challenges. As you pointed out in your question. 

ACME General: Got a slightly political question which I feel comfortable asking you as a former political candidate, that cultural interpretation task. Has that gotten easier over the past couple of years, as it’s become clearer that there are bad guys and good guys in the world, and none of the good guys are perfectly good, we certainly have our problems. But when we’re facing a strategic adversary like Russia, which is indiscriminately bombing civilian population centers, does convincing academics, for example, become a little easier? 

JK: 100%, 100%. In fact, for a very long time, as a legacy of the Vietnam War at the University of Texas, they made a policy of actually doing their best to just not work on lethal munitions projects. As you know, up at Harvard, Harvard Laboratories invented napalm. And to this day, you won’t even be able to find the hallway in the basement where that work was done unless you know what you’re looking for because there’s no plaque. So I understand the hesitancy of some academics or those in academia to not necessarily want to be associated with death and destruction, I get it. But to your point, yes, I have found it to be easier to explain why we still need to have national security, innovation and organizations like Army Futures Command and Staff works and DIY and naval acts and the countless other organizations insane and out there doing this work because the bad guys, they don’t play by the rules. They’re not going to stick around and wait for the Geneva Conventions, and they’re not going to follow any of the latest policies that tech company X puts out in Silicon Valley as to whether or not they’re going to work on certain projects or not. 

ACME General: You just listed the alphabet soup of DoD innovation organizations. How can they? Uh, well, let me frame it positively. How are they working well together? And then how can they do better? 

JK: Well, let’s start with how they’re working. I’ve had firsthand opportunity living here in Austin, Texas, for the last 13 years to watch this industry. If you want to call that being born in this town from the Defense Energy Summit that I helped co-found in November of 2013 to the early days of then Secretary Ash Carter coming into town raising and saying and saying, hey, the DoD needs help. We need people that don’t think like us to be able to understand the potential. And the really cool part about my front row seat, all that is I got to be in that meeting with. When Ash Carter came because people in Austin knew I could speak the different languages. So I saw it firsthand. Then it comes out works. Then in comes Army Futures Command, Army applications lab. Now we have National Security Innovation Network. But here’s the beauty. It’s so much like what we remember. Those that served in the military, those that were in college with their sororities and fraternities. It is a sisterhood and brotherhood, a common mission and purpose. And of the Air Force doesn’t have an announcer or a potential sponsor for a program. You can walk the halls of the Capitol factory, or go from the eighth floor to the 16th floor and go find the folks that are working over in the Army. That might be a better fit, and that in real time, getting up and just walking and walking into their office is accelerating defense innovation in a way that no member of Congress or anybody in the Pentagon could have ever anticipated by creating an org chart. And what is it? At the end of the day, it’s the hustle of young, entrepreneurial minded innovators, problem solvers, which are the very same people that were attracted to the military in the first place. And now to have them not only in uniform, in civilian clothes or out in the private sector working together, uh, it’s beautiful. Now, what do they got to do better? They just got to get better and realize that there’s different languages, different vocabularies. Your listeners are well familiar with those challenges. What I would really hope is that our elected officials somehow find a way to get more comfortable taking risk. And if they can take risk to allow programs to start and fail and fail fast, then we’re going to do a better job of innovating. But if we had this feeling that when we started this program, we can’t let it go, it’s got to go with it. If it fails and it’s a reflection on me, we got to get past that. That’s not the way we think in entrepreneur land. Hell, sometimes you get a red badge of courage if you have a company that failed because at least it meant that you tried hard and you took it to the end. 

ACME General: That’s a great segue into what I want to finish with, which is leadership and leadership challenges and learning from failure. I’ll leave it open ended. Share with us your wisdom. 

JK: Well, first of all, we don’t have enough time on this podcast, me to list all my personal failures in military business. But here’s the cool part. Each time it leaves me or the team that we’re with, with examples of anecdotes of how we got there and more importantly, what we can do in the future to get past it. And so leadership to me really is about at its end, at its absolute essence is to be the change you want to see in others and others, to role model what you want to see. Right. And if you as a leader, speaking on the subject of failure, you as a reader, a leader, accept risk, encourage risk and then find a way to put your arm around that person when they do fail and bring them up in front of the group said, well damn it, we tried. We tried our best. We made some mistakes, but we’re going to gather lessons and we’re going to move on. Do it again. When you can create organization learning organizations, you are going to go far as that expression goes. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. You can only go together. If people know that failure by any one or multiple people in a group won’t result in everybody getting bashed or fired or gone. Now we’ll caveat it, because how have we got to the moral part of your story? Because I love your podcast. You always end on a moral note, if somebody is doing something that’s illegal, unethical or immoral out of the organization, maybe one strike or two but nothing more than three because we got no place for it. 

ACME General: Joseph, always great talking to you. Uh, keep it, keep it going. And thank you so much for joining us today. JK: Thanks again. Thanks for having me on.

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