Introduction: Welcome to the "FedTech Innovator" Podcast, where we talk about all things Deep Tech, innovation, entrepreneurship, and R&D. Now let's get started.
Ben: Hey everybody, Ben: Solomon here — Managing Partner and Founder of FedTech. I'm really excited to be joined by my colleague, Mike Bynum, who is a Director at FedTech, managing all of our DoD programming. We have a really nice conversation set up for today. We're going to ask Mike about the Defense Department — just in January, they released a new small business strategy, so we'll get a nice interpretation of that.
We'll also hear a little bit about Mike's journey. Mike has come to us from a really interesting background that's included time in the Army, time working in the intelligence community, and now he is doing really great work.
So, hey, Mike, how's it going? How's the weather in St. Louis?
Mike: Well, interestingly enough, there was a tornado warning a little earlier. So — you being from the Midwest — you know how those things go. You walk outside and you're like, "Oh, okay, it's not gonna happen today."
Ben: Well, if we hear anything, we'll know what that is. Please take shelter, if appropriate.
Mike: Right, right.
Ben: Alright. Well, Mike, why don't we just unpack a little bit? Obviously, a big strategy document came out a few weeks ago, signed by the Secretary of Defense himself. What was in this document? If you think about our entrepreneur community in particular, what should they take away from this?
Mike: I think the good part of this document is that you're starting to see the shift by the Department of Defense to really start engaging — not just with the small business space, but also with the startup industry. They've identified how difficult it can be sometimes to actually engage with the Department of Defense, even just rightly naming how there are different doors that you can get through — actually too many doors. So, just being able to identify those things, that's often the first step, right? To admit you have a problem.
Then, that next step is how do we solve that, and for them to basically do a little bit of organizational change. I assume that's going to be backed by some budget. They will try to make it more palatable for small businesses to do business with the government, which I think is really important.
Ben: It is interesting, you mentioned this idea of maybe too many doors. Back 10 years ago, I think the start of some of these innovation programs — whether it's DIU, DIUX at the time, AFWERX, NSIN — many amazing organizations that FedTech now is proud to support, but there was kind of this proliferation where, in an effort to be more accessible, they create all these friendly front doors.
Now, it's almost — to your point — maybe a little confusing for small businesses for which ones to go to, and it looks like there'll be maybe a little bit of a roll-up in this policy document here where they're repurposing the Defense Small Business website to be a friendly front door, a single point of entry. From your perspective, how would you advise startups that are looking to work with the DoD for the first time — even in picking — which friendly front door do you start with and why?
Mike: Right, it's interesting; I've had maybe three or four of these discussions in the last two weeks. They all end the same really — that you just don't know what you don't know. To even just talk about what we're doing at FedTech, we're right at the tip of the spear here, where what they're trying to create better avenues for folks who have never engaged with government — whether that's entrepreneurs, small businesses.
Also, being able to clearly see it in this DoD strategy where they actually call out different programs — like AFWERX, SOFWERX, and others — and try to create maybe a hub that people can come to you and understand that there are multiple opportunities for me to do business with DoD. Oh, by the way, I don't have to know these mountains of regulations in order to make it happen. Even with programs like XTechSearch, it's more meant for companies that have never engaged with government, so almost like a friendly shoo-in. To see those kinds of things happening, it's just a far cry from where we were 10 years ago.
Ben: Absolutely. Well, I thought it was interesting; the report highlights that as a percentage, small businesses are actually now making up a smaller percentage of the total industrial base, even though the dollar amounts have gone up for contracts with small businesses. That's probably not a good thing, right? I think this report is recognizing. They even bring out one example; I didn't realize Moderna was a DARPA recipient for mRNA vaccines. It's pretty cool.
What would you like to see in the next five years? What would you like to see in terms of ecosystem development with small businesses? I know the small business-prime relationship is something we care a lot about at FedTech. Tell us more about what you'd like to see in the future.
Mike: Look, I'd like to see the path get easier for the small business. I think all of the right ingredients are in place — programs that are more meant for businesses that haven't engaged with government. Once they get through that window or door, then they understand what additional options they do have.
Then, there are also those businesses that are already engaged with DoD, specifically — say on the SBIR side of the house, getting Phase I and II awards. Gosh, how did they get to three?
As somebody who was previously in the service, obviously there's a lot of cool stuff that's out there. You want to see that get into the hands of the Warfighter, but how much of that actually gets blocked along the way, for one reason or the other? The more stuff you can get down the line to the end user, the better. So, I'd love to see in 5 to 10 years that we've streamlined it to a point where maybe the end user, the Warfighter can have some influence on that acquisitions process.
I just had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone from the Special Operations community, and just kind of blew their mind with all the things that we're working on at FedTech. They're actually applying for one of our Studio programs.
Ben: Oh, cool!
Mike: Even me — when I was in the service, I had no clue about acquisitions. I had no clue about R&D. You know it's out there, but you just don't know what the breadth of it is. Like him, just coming to FedTech, my mind was blown by all this that's going on.
Ben: Absolutely. Another thing that I just took away from when I read the report is there's definitely an emphasis on reducing regulation and requirements for participation. We definitely see with our portfolio companies just how difficult it is to get really spun up to be serving the Defense client base at sale, right? Regardless of what kind of contract you're on, you got to have eventually the class-compliant accounting system, software systems. There are cyber requirements. I mean, it is definitely a game that is stacked against somebody that's brand new to the industry. That's one of the things I'm proud of. I think FedTech can level the field a little bit for startups.
Moving on a little bit, maybe share a little bit of your journey. So I know when we saw your resume come in, we were awfully excited to bring you on a few years ago. Maybe walk us through your service. What led you to the transition point going into business was very interesting to me.
Mike: Interestingly enough, it was a year after 9/11 sitting in my dorm in Iowa City, having a good time. I was always intrigued by the military and really just felt called to do something. It's just crazy what the patriotism levels were like back then, right? Everybody running around with American flags; let's get after it.
So, I went by the recruiters' office. I think I actually upset the recruiter because I was kind of picky about what I wanted to do and I actually wanted to see all of the information. Show me every single job and show me all the bonuses that are attributed to it. He was like, "Oh, we're not allowed to do that." I was like, "I guess we're not in business today then."
So, he called me back a couple days later and went through everything. Obviously, infantry was way up there with the biggest bonus, but then right below it was crypto-analyst linguist. The recruiter offered me an opportunity to call someone who was actually in the job. I was able to talk to that person. Having spent some time in California, I thought it was a pretty good deal. Let's go back to California; let's go to language school and learn a language.
So, I went through the whole MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) process. They tested me multiple times; you take the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), but then you take another test.
Ben: What is the ASVAB?
Mike: The ASVAB is basically an entrance exam into the military. Basically, if you sign your name, you should be able to get in. It's an interesting test. There's a lot of stuff like basic math and some construction stuff on there; it's just a basic skills test. So, they came back and they're like, "This was the highest score we've ever seen." I was like, "Really?" I'm already thinking, "They're joshing me a little bit."
Then, I was like, "Hey, I want to try for the linguist position." So, you have to go take a DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery) is what they call it. It's actually a made-up language. You have to like listen to a few phrases, and then you have to attribute it to some pictures.
Oh, my goodness. Okay.
Mike: I'll tell the story. I'm thinking, "Oh, God, this is crazy." Then, I get three choices when it's done. They come back like "That's the highest grade we've ever seen." I was like, "Okay, you guys are really going for this, right?" So, I got three choices: Arabic, Mandarin, Chinese, or Korean. Because I did taekwondo as a kid and I could count to 10 in Korean, and I was like, "Let's do Korean."
I went to basic training, went out to language school, and spent some time there in the Korean course. While there — actually this was when the surge was going on in Iraq — and the Intel branch came in and said, "Hey, we need more interrogators than we do crypto-analysts linguists. So, you get your same contract, your same bonus. Instead of going to Goodfellow — where you do a different sort of training — you go to Fort Huachuca to do the interrogator training." I took the bait; I went to Fort Huachuca after language school and did the interrogator training.
After that, I got orders to 4th PSYOP Group — they call it 4th POG — out of Fort Bragg. I went out there and spent my entire enlisted career at Fort Bragg. I started there. I ended up going over to what they called Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and really just served as a linguist/interrogator there my entire enlisted career.
Ben: Wow. Can you talk about where you were stationed and then what you learned through that experience that's carried over?
Mike: Yeah. So, even with the start at 4th PSYOP Group, I was part of a battalion that basically worked with the South Korean Army; I did a lot of stuff along the DMZ. Because of my job, my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) — which was 35M, Human Intelligence Collector — we could only go to Iraq. That was it; that was our only allowed deployments at the time. I went over to Joint Special Operations Command and I just got an amazing opportunity to be a part of that group and work with some of the most elite forces on the planet. I can't get into too many details about it, but it was just a mind-blowing experience. Literally, as a new soldier in the Army, I was told, "Hey, grow your beard, get on a plane, and go to Kuwait." My nickname back then was Patches, because it didn't really grow in at all.
Ben: You and me both, man. Yeah, I feel you.
Mike: So, I got made fun of quite a bit. I had a little bit of a baby face. I did a couple of tours there. I started off as an E3 (Private First Class) and made E6 (Staff Sergeant) promotable in four years; I was tracking pretty fast. While there, I also got accepted to OCS (Officer Candidate School). I went and became an officer after that. Then, I became an infantry officer. I served my last few years as an infantry officer and then got the opportunity to transition out.
I grew up as a Monsanto kid; my parents were here in St. Louis. A school I didn't know much about — because I never grew up in St. Louis — was Washington University at St. Louis. They gave me a full ride to their MBA program. There were about 19 of us veterans that got full rides to that MBA program. It was really cool for them to embrace me. We had to go to a boot camp; they're like, "This is a book and this is a whiteboard." I was like, "Okay, great. This is awesome." It was a really cool experience, got to meet some great people, and then came out of there with a high-powered MBA.
Ben: Absolutely. It's one of the best steps in the business. Going back a little bit. I find it interesting — the ability and the kind of knowledge you have around Special Forces. We see at FedTech that — in many ways — Special Forces groups are going to be a very interesting early-adopter for technology. They're often the guys that can buy the most expensive stuff, right? They can break stuff; they can acquire stuff much more easily. So, can you talk at all about that? If you have an entrepreneur that wants to potentially run a pilot or get to get some validation, that could be a good community actually to look at, even though — of course — they're not going to be the most accessible, easily found people.
Mike: Look, it's a small community, but it's a good opportunity to have a better engagement, say with an end user. I'll put it in the buckets of special operations, but then I'll also create this bucket of airborne units. Those two units are definitely going to have budget to try out some new technologies, some new services. I've seen a lot of folks come through, even while I was sort of at Fort Bragg. Orders would come down, "Hey, ten troopers need to go out to this field and/or training area, and work with this company who has these new — gee whiz — communications gadgets." They are part of implementing and testing out different equipment.
Now, you have to be careful with the airborne community; they're always going to ask, "Hey, can you throw it out of a plane? Will it survive?" You always have to consider that.
On the special operations side, they're always going to be looking out for technologies that are gonna give them an advantage on the battlefield, and obviously, are going to try to test those out. It's really cool to see an organization like SOFWERX popping up, who's actually being a part of that funneling of technology into the Special Operations community. Just love to see it. I think every company that has a solution that they think can be used in that room, they absolutely should try to make it happen.
Now, there are still the processes; they've been able to reduce them, but they still have to follow the laws and regulations that serve over the acquisitions process. If you get validated there, it just makes life a little bit easier as you try to spread out across other DoD organizations.
Ben: Absolutely. For entrepreneurs, I always say, "Look, contact SOFWERX. There are small business people that are listed — whether it's the SOCOM website or other places. Maybe don't email them; maybe call them, see if you can strike up a conversation, and see if it'll make an intro for you. I know that they get a lot of emails."
Tell me more. Obviously, it's a big transition point into an MBA program. When did you start to get interested in the space that we operate in now — venture building? What made you excited about that?
Mike: I got all kinds of funny stories. So I'm in the MBA program — and I don't want to bash them, but I'll just throw this out there — there's this program called Insight. It's very high-profile student consulting; there's a chapter at Harvard and there's a chapter at Wash U. I interviewed and they rejected me. I was like, "Oh, my god. What?" They said I wasn't a good fit.
I ended up going into the community in St. Louis and I ran into a nonprofit called the BALSA Foundation.
Let me rewind. First, it was called the BALSA group. It's basically student consulting for biotech and life science startups. I was actually the only MBA on the team; there's a bunch of PhDs and researchers, so I brought a bit of a different element to the team. I did a lot of startup engagements there. Then, they asked me to switch over to their philanthropic arm, which was the BALSA Foundation. There, they actually funded first-time entrepreneurs from underserved communities. So, that was just something that I participated in as community engagement and I really enjoyed that space. Okay, I'm working with upstarts, entrepreneurs, and startups, biotech, life sciences; that was really cool. Again, I'm not a biotech or life sciences expert, but I was able to bring some business acumen to the engagements.
Similarly, with the philanthropic side, I was working with startups from underserved communities. Now, my bio going into the MBA program was I wanted to work in sports, somehow; I wanted to work in the business of sports. So, I was told, "Hey, you gotta go check in with Stadia Ventures," which was also here in St. Louis. I ended up volunteering for their pitch day.
Ben: What would Stadia do?
Mike: It's a sports tech VC; they invest in sports tech businesses and also eSports businesses. Alongside their fund, they have an accelerator. They'll invest and then you go through the accelerator. They've got a big pitch day; you actually have to pitch to get into the program. They called out to Wash U that they needed some volunteers; I went over there and basically held a timer for the people pitching on the stage.
Something happened, and they're like, "Can you help us out?" I just got everything under control and started running the show. They're like, "We need you around a little bit more often," so I ended up interning with them most of my time as a student.
Then, that was my first fulltime role coming out of the MBA program. Sports tech, VC, eSports, biotech life sciences — I got a nice injection of it all while I was in school and just fell in love with the space.
It didn't really hit me until maybe a year-and-a-half, two years ago like, "Man, why am I so addicted to this startup ecosystem?" It was a leadership webinar for one of these cohort programs where they were showing some military photos up there. It just dawned on me: to start a business from scratch is insanity. You have to be like wired a different kind of way to do that. I just found that it kind of served that itch that I'm missing from the military where — literally every day — we were asked to do something ridiculous or impossible, but we got it done, right? That's really my affinity for this space is just to see people doing Mission Impossible. Imagine, from scratch to exit, how hard that is.
Also, it's an industry where you fail forward. I've seen some job posts out there, where you have to have two or three failed businesses behind you in order to get the job in the startup space. So, that's also what I love because the military is all about iteration. What went well? What went wrong? Okay, let's go back and do it again a better way. So that's why I have a lot of affinity for the space.
Ben: In the course of running our programs, I know you've gotten to be right alongside founders. I'm curious — what have you kind of noticed about the best of our founders that have come through our programs? What kind of traits do they have?
Mike: It's a no-surrender mentality, which makes the job — I'll say interesting. I'm not gonna say difficult, but it makes it interesting. Even for the folks that work on my team, I always tell them, "Half of this is dealing with people." I'm not surprised when a founder wants the world from us. Obviously, we can't provide the world, but you got to always think, "Hey, these people are trying to accomplish Mission Impossible." Then, you throw in the government/DoD layers of it all. It makes it even more difficult.
It's just refreshing to engage with these type of folks who are making it happen. Some of them have poured their life savings into their venture. Sometimes, there's tears on these calls because they really want this to work. Their life is depending upon it. So, if you go into this industry with a little bit of empathy, it just goes a long way.
I've always found always asking the team, "Hey, what's your superpower? What's the startup founder calling you for?" I think what they call me for is like, "Hey, Mike can get me to the right person?" I'll never say that I'm the expert. Now, if you want to talk pitch decks, I can help you there.
If we're talking about raising VC funds, raising super funds, talking about anything and everything that has to do with your business, there's a resource. Whether that's at FedTech, in our network, or in my network, we can make it happen and that's the spirit that I take into all of our programs.
Ben: It's interesting — hitting on that point of what you learn from failure, right? I've always thought — in the course of us starting FedTech back seven, eight years ago — it's advanced learning, right? You do things, you mess up every single day. When you learn from those mistakes and those mess ups, you don't do those again. It's like, it's like touching a hot stove or something; it's like the child learns quickly to not touch. You avoid things that cause the pain and you do the things that end up feeling better and being more successful. Over time, you find it and iterate.
To me, some of the best advice I got early on in my career was actually back when I was doing my MBA. There was a founder of — at the time — a very popular social media dating website who came and spoke at our campus at the University of Maryland. He was like, "Hey, you really got to try starting a company, because you have a work-life of 50 years, right? If you spend six months doing a startup, that's 1% of your work-life. You can always come back from that; it's not that much risk. What you learn in that that period is just spectacular."
So I think it's fun. We get to see that in our company with our founders all the time, right? There's a true change in people as they go through our programs.
Mike: Well, just think about the story, think about where you started. Probably, you were just sitting in a room, coming up with this idea. Then — of course — Jake comes around and now, there are almost 50 people running around, playing with FedTech, which is really cool. That journey — you just can't beat it. That's what I'm so enamored with in startup founders and how they're getting it done.
I had a similar experience in my MBA program. The founder of the drink Bai talked to us; my goodness, what he had to go through to get his drink onto the shelf was just madness. It just takes someone who's just got that grit and gets after it. It's never easy to get it done.
Ben: Did they get acquired?
Mike: Yeah. That was where his story really turned because they got acquired. They brought him in as a VP of Innovation/Disruption and he ended up getting fired. It was almost like I could just feel it when he was talking — it's almost a depressing moment to be engulfed by this big company.
It makes me even think about founders that have been acquired and now, you're a part of the big machine. You have to sit there for a year or two as a part of your acquisition, but all of them are really itching to get back out and start another venture, which is what he did.
Ben: Well, it's funny, right? You hear founders be so enamored with, "Okay, we're working towards this exit, right?" Of course, you want to be, but it is funny when you actually talk to people that have really made a sale where they truly exit meaning they're out of the company within a short period of time. It's not always a direct correlation with happiness, right? I mean, you're used to being in charge; you're used to having a lot of work to do. You go from being in charge of an organization to being in charge of nothing, basically. You got some money, but you still gotta have something that's the kind of drives you in life to focus on. It's an interesting conundrum there.
Mike: Right. Absolutely.
Ben: Well, Mike, there's just a couple more minutes here. Why don't you share a little bit? I always like when I hear you describe kind of the continuum of our programs. Especially within the Defense community, FedTech can help you to take an idea from the early stages all the way to a product and looking at things like a Phase III SBIR. Do you want to walk us through the programs that you get to touch and manage on a daily basis that have each of those those continuing points?
Mike: I think the cool part is if you think about the continuum, you think about Technology Readiness Levels where a One is really just an idea — we have a bit of a concept sketch — all the way out to at Nine — we have a product that's ready to go onto the shelf. The cool part of what we're doing at FedTech is we have specific programs that touch each segment of that Technology Readiness Level continuum. What I enjoy — even my first project I worked on FedTech was more of our studio model —we're able to take technology out of DoD labs, put it in the hands of entrepreneurs, and spin out new ventures.
Honestly, Ben, I was a skeptic. When I came to FedTech, I was like, "There's no way I'm bringing 100+ strangers together and spinning out new ventures." Gosh, we did it; we spun out 15 or 16 companies. Some of those have raised venture capital, some of those have gotten into other big programs. Again, it just comes back to that grit. If you want to become a startup founder, FedTech can make that happen for you — all day, every day.
Then there's, "Hey, let's get all the way down to TRL Zero and One." We're in the labs — we're going into the Army Research Lab, other labs — and working with the actual inventors. I had the honor the other day of coaching a few inventors who were actually going to pitch to Warfighters for the first time ever. Again, we're just being a part of that connective tissue. Actually, I brought it up, "A couple of years ago, I didn't even know you guys. Would it be cool if you could actually pitch to Warfighters," and now they're doing it.
Then, all the way out to the later stages of TRL, we've got a really cool program with Northrop Grumman where we're helping them find startup companies to bring into their ecosystem. Then — even greater — is the US Army; we're working with them, their Applied SBIR program, their XTech program.
In that entire continuum, there's so much to touch there. It's exciting to wake up and come work in this space every day.
Ben: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate that overview. We usually end with — do you have any advice? What would be your tweet-sized advice for a founder that maybe is brand new to the space? What would you tell them?
Mike: Look, there are a lot of doors to walk through; it's one of those games where you just don't know what you don't know. This sounds kind of corny, but hit up FedTech. We literally could bombard you with links to different programs that you can participate in. It doesn't even have to be our program. I mean, all boats rise, right?
There's so much going on out there. Hit up anyone at FedTech like, "Hey, how do I do this? Where do I start?" We'll provide you with plenty of resources to get you started on your journey.
Ben: Right, I love hearing that. Well, thanks, Mike. It's fun to work with you. Thanks for doing what you do. We'll sign off here, but I appreciate your time and we'll get back to it.
Mike: Absolutely. Right. Thank you.