STANFORD, CALIFORNIA —
There are more than 100 entrepreneurship courses at Stanford University. But only one involves students running into the ocean fully dressed or donning explosives device uniforms.
In the Hacking for Defense class, students tackle problems facing troops and defense agencies. They are expected to go out in the field to understand what it is like to be a soldier struggling with mapping technology or a returning veteran dealing with multiple injuries.
“They work on some of the toughest real world problems they are ever going to see," said Steve Blank, one of the class instructors.
"With all due respect to Google and Dropbox and Facebook and Twitter, which they all have opportunities in the valley to go work for as graduates here, these are some problems that make those look trivial by comparison," he said.
Agencies within the Department of Defense give the class problems. The students could be challenged with finding ways to help veterans with multiple injuries or figuring out a technology so that Navy Seal divers don’t have to come up for air as frequently.
Students interview people as part of a methodology for turning ideas quickly into solutions, known as "minimum viable products." They constantly test their hypotheses for a solution and from the interviews often learn they have to start over again. This methodology, dubbed the "Lean Launchpad," is used by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Core program for commercializing science.
The Stanford students also have to learn how decisions are made inside the organization.
"Deployment means, where is the money coming from?" said Blank. "Who do you have to convince? Is it the general, is it some program manager? Is it a series of people. Who is actually going to build it?"
The unusual 10-week course is an eye-opener for the students who learn up close the challenges facing national security. In addition to Stanford, the class is now taught at eight other universities.
Benji Nguyen, a public policy student from Austin, Texas, is working on cyber security at U.S. ports as part of USTRANSCOM, which manages transportation in the United States.
He’s talked about the class with his parents.
"When I told them I was working with the military to help solve a problem, they were really excited about it actually,” he said.
For U.S. students, the Hacking for Defense class gives them a unique chance to serve their country; but, it also has attracted a surprising number of foreign-born students, said Blank.
"I was surprised by the number of foreign students from Singapore, China and India who were just interested in learning the same methodology and take it home from wherever they are," he said.
Some students go on to create companies out of their class project.
When he took Hacking for Defense last year at Stanford, Payam Banazadeh, the chief executive of Capella Space, said his team interviewed more than 150 people, asking, "What are your pain points? What keeps you up? If you had money to spend, what would you spend it on?" The team was working on satellites that can gather data even with cloud cover and darkness.
"If their answers matched our technology, then you had a real customer," said the Iranian-born entrepreneur.
Recently, Capella raised $12 million in funding. It counts the Department of Defense among its customers.