Reviewing Innovation in the US Navy with Mike Brasseur, Logan Jones, and Bilal Zuberi

ACME General Corp. revisits the past three Accelerate Defense interviews, all focused on the role of innovation in addressing strategic challenges faced by the US Navy.

Captain Michael Brasseur (@brasseur_mdb) is the co-founder and current Commodore of Task Force 59. Logan Jones is the  general manager and president of SparkCognition Government Systems. Bilal Zuberi (@bznotes) is a general partner at Lux Capital.

ACME General: On this episode of Accelerate Defense, we’re revisiting our last three interviews, which all discussed the role of innovation in addressing strategic challenges faced by the US Navy. Captain Mike Brasseur commands Task Force 59, and set the stage for this series. 

This very moment, the US Navy’s 5th Fleet is pioneering the deployment of unmanned autonomous naval vessels to expand situational awareness for theater commanders, and to counteract growing, and evolving threats. 

Logan Jones, CEO of SparkCognition Government Systems, explain his company’s focus on government clients, and dives deep into why software is such a critical, but all often overlooked, component in the systems – like unmanned naval drones — that warfighters will need to manage the battlespace of the future. 

And Bilal Zuberi, partner at Lux Capital, discusses the vital role that private investment plays in ensuring these new technologies have a place in the defense innovation ecosystem. Bilal also shares some wonderful insights on how these startups can inspire their teams.

We’ll start with Mike Brasseur. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, but I wanted to focus on his reflections about innovation and culture. Here’s Mike:

Mike Brasseur: So what we’re all about is the rapid adoption of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into fleet operations, to ultimately deter that malign activity that you were referring to, and ensure the free flow of commerce throughout the region and through those three choke points we mentioned. So it’s all about rapid adoption of tech. We are mostly in the dual-use commercial tech space. There’s a lot of advantages to that, it’s affordable, it’s good, it’s fast, it helps us solve our challenges now. So that’s primarily the space that Task Force 59 is operating on. We’re collaborative, it’s in our DNA. As I mentioned, my experience goes back to NATO and that’s a very collaborative environment, and we have that same sort of interaction with partners here. It’s a very, very exciting time right now here in the Arabian Gulf.

ACME General: It sounds very much like a tech innovation mindset. How does that mesh with the Navy’s culture, which is very much geared towards minimizing risk?

MB: So this is, I’m glad you picked up on that, Ken. Our tolerance for risk at Task Force 59 is probably higher than many of our peers, that can be uncomfortable, but we believe you don’t really discover new capabilities unless you’re willing to take risks. You know, so we do mitigate a lot of those risks by doing it in benign environments before going out towards more challenging situations, but we do have a high tolerance for risk. We do have a very, very exciting and smart team. I’ll just give you a few examples if you’ll oblige me. My deputy commodore who helped, basically co-found Task Force 59 with me, was the CEO. He’s a reservist. He was the CEO of a $1 billion cyber security company. I recruited the top PC captain from the Waterfront, Lieutenant Commander Ray Miller. He’s got 700 days of experience at sea in the past four years, from the high North, to the south China sea. And he most recently was captain of one of our PCs out here. I’ve got two Forbes, 30 under 30s on my team. One just came from the Hill, she was also on the defense innovation board.

So you get kind of that sort of talent, all focused on those challenges, what you kind of alluded to early on, and there’s this really sort of creative mood. It’s not your standard Navy task force. And it’s an absolute thrill thrill ride Ken. It’s the joy of my professional life, working with these people focused on a real problems moving very, very fast.

ACME General: It sounds like you’ve got the right talent, and the right team. How do they approach the perennial problem in situations like this, the chicken-and-egg problem of needing to understand how a technology will be used to be able to assess it while also needing to understand what that technology is capable of in order to understand how it can be used?

MB: So this is, and I just kind of touched on a few of the folks on the team, but there’s this intellectual diversity that really approaches problems from multiple angles. So you’ve got a world class operator, with a cybersecurity CEO, some expertise in 5G and all emerging tech. And you get those people focused on operational problems bounded, we’re not trying to boil the ocean here, we’re trying to solve real problems. And then most importantly, you go out and you do, right? We are in the mature dual-use commercial tech space. We want stuff, and we know KIT and tools are out there that can help solve our challenges now. And that’s the space we’re operating in. So, and in many instances, Ken, what happens is we may go into an exercise or an experiment thinking the particular KIT or AI application is going to perform one way. And then we start to see the potential of other concepts of operations. And we start to mature those through additional reps and sets. So it’s, yeah, that sort of diversity of experience, is so valuable in this space. And then just the value of doing, and we’ve done a lot. I mean, we’ve all got over 10,000 hours of experience at this point. So we’re not novices, we’re advancing relatively quickly.

ACME General: You referred to both KIT and AI applications. How would you characterize the balance of your tech assessments between hardware and software? Do you skew in favor one or the other?

MB: Okay. So what when I said KIT, I’m talking about maritime robotics above, on, and below the water, unmanned systems above, on, and below the water, and artificial intelligence. And the fact that we are a task force about unmanned systems and artificial intelligence is not an accident. We did that intentionally. We see these two as inextricably linked, right? They go together. The unmanned systems, and we’re in the affordable, attributable, unmanned systems. There’s a quality and quantity. So we’re trying to get a lot of sensors out on the water to cover more ground, but also get a lot of different sensors out there. And that is powering the machine learning and AI tools to give us key insights and highlight for us, what’s outside the normal pattern of life. So it can be very, very precise with the deployment of our man assets. So the balance, I would say, is 50/50. I would guess, or yeah I would say it’s about an equal balance of our focus. I know a lot of folks are focused on the robots. We are really, really focused on both the robots, the artificial intelligence, and then all those sort of enabling technologies, the mesh networks, the cloud computing, all the stuff that really power these machine learning and AI tools.

ACME General: Logan Jones, head of SGS, has built a company with a specific focus on serving government clients. He knows that’s both a highly competitive, and highly regulated space, but with the right products, and the right approach to innovation, companies like SGS can be incredibly successful. And for Logan, that product is software.

We had a great conversation with captain Mike Brasseur from task force 59. And I wanted to get your perspective on the role of software in enabling an initiative like that. All of the glitz is around the kit, right? The hardware, the robots, the drones, but none of it works without code. Talk about that.

Logan Jones: Yeah. Well, Ken, it’s one of those, I’ve faced this, I think many of us have faced. This is how do you compel? What’s the attractiveness around the enabler, which is software intangible, oftentimes buying the scenes when everybody can see and touch and feel the hardware itself. It’s a difficult thing to do. I think the Commodore has done a very good job of yes, showcasing hardware and how it’s being adopted into the mission set. At the same time, working in parallel of applying and investing in the building blocks of software that actually makes the hardware even more effective. So it this virtuous cycle. I think task force 59 has done a really good job of that. The way that we’re thinking about this is we also invested in experimentation facility.

We call it HyperWorks. It’s just north of Austin, Texas. We know that operators within this segment must be able to see, touch and feel not just the software, but the entire solution. So we built out a 50 acre proving ground where we show how AI in the real world comes to life, how it operates and integrates with hardware itself. We believe in a future that is much brighter when you remain focused on software and the other side of that coin is hardware agnostic. You work well within the ecosystem of providers. So we have partners that we work with, through experimentation at HyperWorks companies like Raytheon, Boeing, and others frankly, around how AI can enable that to come to life. And Ken you said it, comes down to building the relationship, advancing the trust, and that trust is actually enabled by showing how it comes to life in the real world.

ACME General: You mentioned Raytheon and Boeing. Do you have any words of wisdom for the non-traditionals, the upstarts, the disruptors, trying to figure out a way to contribute within this ecosystem. You had a quote as SGS was emerging from COVID about government sticking with incumbents and the challenges for non-traditional entrance. What’s your prediction for the next few years and what can non-traditionals do to grease the skids?

LJ: Yeah, Ken. It’s a great question. When I was in a traditional, if you will, my job for the last four years of it was to make, in this case, it was Boeing, to help Boeing bridge to this emerging ecosystem of new entrants and leverage its resources to help those companies, but also effectively help its customer base. Tap into it in a natural way. What I’ve observed and I guess my advice would be, it comes down to my belief system in a way about this marketplace, about the topic of defense and national security. I believe that this has to be an ecosystem. This is not going to be a walled garden, totally vertically integrated solution that wins the day that helps to move the needle for national security.

I think that our customers and our cause is promoted best by working well within an ecosystem of providers. So what does that mean for emerging companies? I believe that you should look at your go-to-market in different ways. Two of those ways is build direct trusting relationships within the customers that you want to serve. You have to do that. You have to get to know the user community so that you have a ground level understanding of the problems that they aim to solve. Number two is also work with the OEMs, the primes, and the SIs as a way to accelerate your ability to help the end customer solve a problem. And if you have an open and clear mind about it and know that it will take time, I think it pays dividends, not just for your company, but it actually helps customers leverage the capabilities coming out of this community in a much more effective way than just trying to break down the acquisition system and disrupt if you will. Does that make sense, Ken?

ACME General: It does. I want to ask you to look out, let’s say 10 years, and if this ecosystem matures the way you hope it does, what are your brightest expectations? And I guess I have to also ask then what are your biggest fears? What should we be guarding against and feel free to factor in the ethical implications to that answer as well?

LJ: Sure. Well, actually, let’s start on the downside. The downside is status quo that we don’t actually change. That very exciting. And I think well-positioned initiatives like CDAO that’s really on great footing at this point. Don’t take hold. I don’t think we as a country and we, as a group of allies can afford current state applying into perpetuity, or maybe put another way taking what worked in the cold war and applying it to a future scenario. I don’t think it works. What I think success looks like Ken, I wake up every day focused on this. This is invigorating for many of us in industry is to think that the future will be brightened by a number of new entrants, a variety of emerging companies driving real innovation into the space. I’ll give you just one example to bring it to life a little bit.

And I have to caveat this. I’m a big fan of Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, disruption theory, and there’s a segment out there around maintenance. Again, I’ll pick a mundane example, that is pretty easy to grasp. If you look at a GAO report from August, of 2020 is when I think it was. It starts to detail some of the problems within this community. They’ve completed 38 of 51. So that’s about 75% of maintenance periods late for aircraft carriers and submarines, 75%. That’s a combined total of 7,424 days of maintenance late in that period. If you added it all up. The four shipyards completed maintenance periods in average of 113 days late for aircraft carriers. Ken, is that acceptable?

So if we dug into why this is? One is yes, it’s an extremely complex problem. I got it. But it’s also a reflection of the status quo not working, the maintenance and repair business is a lucrative business. The incentives built into long term contracting, actually disincentivizes change. So again, what do I take as a bright future? I take a bright future as DOD really investing in new software based solutions in our case, aiming at fairly sleepy mundane and traditional problem sets, that change our mindset where we don’t think that 75% late is actually acceptable or a level of success that’ll help us in the future fight. And so how are we going to do that? It’s with a combination and many new entrants to this space competing and driving innovation through the incentives that exist in this industry. And so that’s what we’re applying for. I do see signs that it’s happening, but it’s going to take a number of years to make it so.

ACME General: Yeah. It is. Bob Work the chair of your board said this about you, “Logan understands that this is a values competition. He really understands that everything starts at the ground floor, that the technologists who are developing AI applications have to fully embrace the idea of responsible AI.”

LJ: We do. You can’t just have a group of people who are working in national security and defense treated as I guess, benignly as a social media app in a way that may not be a popular statement, but the way that we are thinking about this and the gravity that we apply to the decision making process, matches the gravity of the mission of our customers. And this isn’t, again, this is not just SGS. What I’ve observed over the many years I’ve been working in this industry is that no company’s differentiating themselves on an issue like ethics and responsibility, is that this is a unifying theme across American industry, across this ecosystem. And it’s working its way into the applications that we’re deploying collectively into DOD. So, Ken we’re on the right track as an industry.

ACME General: My conversation with Bilal Zuberi ranged far and wide, from the role of patriotism in driving his investment decisions, to why innovators – even in the defense ecosystem – need to be “a little bit crazy” (his words). As a partner at Lux Capital, Bilal has performed a key role in not only identifying key technologies that will shape the battlespace of the future, but ensuring that the best minds, and the best companies – like Saildrone and SGS — can join the fight.

Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.

What are examples of other companies in the Lux portfolio that are doing that well? I’m going to force you to talk about Saildrone if you don’t volunteer, but give me your top list.

Bilal Zuberi: I think Saildrone has done an amazing job of bringing people who are really committed to it. Everything from the board level down. There’s former admirals who are on the board. There’re advisors, who are very senior military people who spend a lot of time on it. There’re board members who are… Been committed to it for years now and will stay committed to it. And then every employee, and I’ve met many of them. Every time I go there, I go around shaking hands on the floor. Every single person feels that they’re building something that’s larger than themselves. And they’re proud to be a part of that, whether it’s solving climate change problems or whether they’re solving fisheries problems or are telecommunication problems or national security.

Just yesterday, I don’t know if you noticed, but big brouhaha happened in the news. And I woke up to seeing, “Hey, an Iranian vessel had captured a Saildrone and were trying to tow it away.” When that Saildrone vessel was doing work for the US Navy Fifth Fleet. And US Navy had to intervene. And a patrol coast boat had to show up and a helicopter had to show up. And then Iranian boat, which was a IRGC Revolutionary Guard boat, they had to release the Saildrone. Now, it’s an incident that happened, thankfully didn’t flare up to anything larger. It was a historic moment for Saildrone. Like, “Oh my God,” that this happened.

But talking to everybody that I spoke to since yesterday, everybody felt this deep sense of mission that what we are doing for protecting democracies and protecting the US Navy and working with the US Navy, with all the mission that the US Navy has is extremely important. And we almost felt this energy inside us, that we are on a mission and we have to accomplish this. There’s no backing down. Not one of us woke up when we invested in Saildrone thinking one day Iranian Revolutionary Guards will be capturing our vehicles. That was not in my memo when I made the investment. But now that we are in the thick of it, we feel committed because we know Saildrone is on the right path and doing the right things.

ACME General: I’m glad you brought up the incident in the Gulf because I wanted to read one of your tweets. In showing a picture of the interception, there’s a US Navy cruiser pulling up alongside the IRGCN ship that had hijacked this Saildrone. You wrote, “Let’s be clear, Saildrone won’t be intimidated.” It’s not often that you get to be that badass when running a tech company. That has to work its way through the whole organization. That mission orientation must be helped by the fact that lives are literally on the line and you’re helping make the world safer for democracy. Not to be too cliche.

BZ: Ken, I’m glad that you mentioned that because it’s… Has to be underscored, when I say a sense of mission. People don’t start companies to make money. The greatest companies that have been built were not built because people were trying to make a quick buck. They were people who were missionaries, who wanted the world to be a certain way. Whether we like, dislike, hate Mark Zuckerberg, he wanted the world to be connected. That was his mission. The guy is a multi-billionaire. The guy would retire and buy islands off some coast of some country. And we never have to hear from him, but he takes public abuse because he still continues to believe that his mission is not accomplished. Elon Musk is the same way, whether he wants to go to Mars or he wants to do… Whatever he wants to do, he is on a mission.

People’s perception of Silicon Valley is eating pizza and writing code so you can build dating website is not true. I’m sure there are people who are doing that and lots of people doing that. But there are people sitting here who are building technologies, like they’re building… When Silicon Valley first started, building radar systems and missile guidance systems and whatnot. That Lockheed Martin was based here in the venture capital industry that grew around it. They’re building systems that are protecting lives around the world. We have companies like Evolve Technologies that are literally protecting… And I can’t talk about it very much, but preventing mass shootings from happening because people are walking in with long guns, multiples of them inside buildings and they stop them. That’s a sense of mission. That would not have happened without the use of technology. That’s what technology does for us.

When we have cyber security systems that are protecting our railway systems and airports. And every day that we are attacked by ransom artists and nation states that are enemies of the US, that is really technology doing important work. And I think it’s really important to underscore that because we don’t want the next generation, especially because I’m getting to that age where the next generation is going to take over. We don’t want the next generation to think that technology’s just about goofing around on the internet. Technology has a critical role to play in every aspect of our lives and startups can go and build companies that do that. They are needing to solve climate change. They need to solve water issues. They need to solve poverty issues, sanitation issues, and provide security.

ACME General: It wasn’t long ago that it seemed like Silicon Valley was just… There was a cultural anathema to working with DOD. There was damn, near a revolt at Google. I have asked some of our previous guests about this. There was something of a mood shift after the invasion of Ukraine. This realization that, “Oh my God, the world is a dangerous place after all. And there are good guys and bad guys.” Lux has a pretty long and robust track record of partnering with the DOD. How have you managed that tension if it exists at all in the companies you’re guiding down that path?

BZ: Look, this is an important topic. First and foremost, I was in this country when 9/11 happened. And I could see the sense of patriotism that was in people’s hearts. Many of them didn’t know what to do with it. Many of them enlisted in the army when they were young and others were working on technologies and companies like Palantir came out and others Evolve Technologies’ founder built, same idea preventing bomb from getting onto the planes. There was a real palpable sense of “What do we do? How do we protect ourselves against this?” And I think that has sustained. And obviously what has happened in the last few years has even heightened that realization that we may be at war with large nation states that we may not want to say we’re at war, but frankly we are. Whether it’s China or Russia or whatever, we may be having proxy wars and we may be having cyber wars or whatever, but we are in a conflict and our freedoms depend on us prevailing.

We have an army and a navy and an air force for a reason. The fact that you can buy your fuel at a dollar a gallon is because we have partnerships around the world that can protect US national interests around the world. People don’t think about all of these things and started to have opinions. And that started to pervade in the technology companies more. But it was never throughout the technology industry, it was a few organizations that happened to be very loud. Look, mid-nineties, early two-thousands Google was it. Google was at the kingpin of everything. So people didn’t want to speak out if they disagreed with that point of view. But I think what you’re seeing over the last five years is entrepreneurs in every sector have stood up and said, “Look, we need to work with the US government. We need to find ways to support the US government.” Whether it’s a digitization of our or whether it’s working with the Defense Department and military and so on.

But we have to provide technology because it just so turns out that until 30 years ago, advanced technologies in any sector were mostly funded by DOD or somewhere by DOD. They would be accessible to the defense sector first, then they would become available to the large enterprises who could afford it as they became a little bit cheaper. And only many years later, would they become affordable enough for ordinary consumers to have access to it. But over the last 20, 25 years, the most advanced technologies, especially in machine learning, AI, software enterprise tools, consumer devices, you and I have access to it first. Then it goes to corporations who might say, “Okay, you can bring your own devices to work.” So we had iPhones before corporations allowed us to use iPhones. And only six years later after iPhone invented but if it was a four star general able to get access to it. So military now gets the technology last. And I think we need to change that.

Again and again, you see sectors where we might believe that the government should do that until we realize, “Well, the government is… Guess what? We are the government. And so let’s do it ourselves. We can do it better, faster, cheaper.” I think these are great commercial opportunities for people. And I think you’re seeing it in spades across. All of us don’t think twice before we buy a bottle of water with a lot of plastic and a little bit of water, we do it every day many times a day. The reality is there should be government providing us clean water. “Why do I have to have a bottle of water that I have to buy to make sure that I’m not getting sick?” This is something the government should be doing. But if the government is not doing, if they don’t have budgets or if we can do this better, faster, cheaper with building distributed, reverse osmosis plants, we can put in our homes and put in our offices. That’s a commercial opportunity for us.

ACME General: Last question, which is the whole point of Accelerate Defense. And we could do a whole show on it, but I want your top line words of wisdom on how non-traditional tech innovators can break into the DOD ecosystem. What is the first thing they should start thinking about?

BZ: You mean people who are not from DOD background?

ACME General: Yeah. I’m talking about those… I’ll try to pull up your quote again, those companies that are at least a little bit crazy, that have a big idea, five or 10 years in the future. They care about mission. They care about national security. They just don’t think they have the resources to compete with the primes, the big defense contractors.

BZ: Yes. As you said, we can talk for an hour about the problems with the US acquisition system. First and foremost, most entrepreneurs don’t understand how the government works. If you were a young kid who left Ohio to come to Silicon Valley or New York or Boston or wherever you went and you started building a company, or if you were doing it today in Ohio or North Carolina or whatever, you’re not sitting there thinking about “How does the money flow in the government? What does the legislature do that creates appropriations?” And then it goes to programs and the programs have these acquisition officers. So even if a general wants your technology, the general has no money to buy anything. He has to find an acquisition group that agrees to buy it. And there’s a whole process that goes through it, maybe seven layers of approvals and so on.

First and foremost, you should understand that it is a process. It’s highly bureaucratic. It’s somewhat unfair, but it is a process. So find people who have done this before to at least get a sense of what it takes. Just like if you were to sell to automotive industry or biopharmaceutical industry, you would need to find people to take you through that process. You want to get an FDA approval for your drug. You don’t just show up as a young person, “Hey, I want an approval.” There’s a process you go through to do the clinical trials and so on and so forth. And if you don’t do them right, you basically throw all your money into investment. First and foremost, that’s important. But the most important thing is understanding that even within the most bureaucratic organizations, there are people who understand the importance of innovation. You have to find those champions.

Now, in addition to finding those champions and they exist in every part of the armed forces, they usually have small budgets, they’re R&D guys and so on and so forth. You have to find pools of capital that are already available. Unlike corporations, that if they see value in your product, they can move money from one bucket to the other easily to buy your product, that is very hard to do with the US DOD. So you have to find existing pools of capital that they don’t advertise. There’s no website you can go to and find that, but you have to network your way in to figure out who has a pool of capital to focus on a virtual wall or a reconnaissance mission in the Middle East or space-based AI systems that are used for monitoring North Korea, mission operations and so on and so forth. The pools of capital that you go after.

And the last but not the least is, as you’re starting to build companies in this space, talk to other CEOs and talk to people who have built companies in this space because they will guide you to people who can get this done faster, better, cheaper for you. Most CEOs often ask me, “Should I hire a lobbyist first? Should I have a business development person? Or should I hire a salesperson? Should I bring on a four star general on my board? Is that the way to do this? Should I have a US Congressman on my board or ex-Congressman on my board?” Stop. Before you start piling all kinds of people into your organization. That gives you a feeling that you’re accomplishing things, but you’re not.

I think it’s starting to open up and there’re organizations now such as Defense Innovation unit, such as Silicon Valley Defense Group and others that are emerging. Silicon Valley is not Silicon Valley geography. Silicon Valley is the entire tech sector spread across the country, in my opinion. So Silicon Valley Defense Group and others are now creating classes and materials to help you understand how to do this, but this is extremely… This are really large sectors. US military budget is $700 billion plus, and there’s additional budget on top of that, that we don’t hear about. That is massive dollars that you can get access to. And not only is it a massive market for you to go after. We are in conflicts all around the world in every which way and your technology is deeply required. When some other places in commercial sectors, it might be nice to have, US military requires it and really needs it. So I think if you can find your way on how to sell, this represents very large opportunity.

ACME General: That was Bilal Zuberi, along with CAPT. Mike Brasseur, and Logan Jones. Although we did not have them in the studio together, it’s clear that success in any one of their fields depends on the success of the entire innovation ecosystem. Without capital, innovators cannot function. And without innovation, warfighters cannot adapt to the modern battlefield. Our competitive advantage, as a nation, is this symbiosis, and the people who make it work. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Accelerate Defense. Stay tuned for new episodes every month.

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