Creating Military Innovation Institutes

Recent announcements by Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, regarding the development of Defense Innovation Units Experimental – in Silicon Valley, Boston, and now Austin, have inspired many in the Department of Defense, including myself, to consider how we too can deliver innovation. Given the need to modernize American military forces after nearly two decades of continued warfare, many hope that DIU-X units will bring new ideas for systems, roles, and processes to the DoD. As exciting as these possibilities are, however, I would like to offer that leaders should not wait for innovation to be delivered to them. Instead, they should begin building their own local flavor of innovation. Begin at each installation. The talent, mentorship, and resources to deliver extraordinary results exist at many bases already – the only thing lacking is the leadership to bring it all together.

Keys to Building Innovation Institutes

In order to deliver innovation, leaders must accomplish a number of objectives. First, they must work beyond their traditional job descriptions, and the pre-defined roles of their organizations. They must reach out to other leaders eager to find strategic partnerships. They must look for ways to develop win-win opportunities that will attract others to donate their time, money, and manpower. In addition, they must create a space to innovate, and resource it appropriately. This space should attract hobbyists, students, teachers, and private-public partners to come together. If leaders build it – talent will come – and innovation can arise. Finally, leaders must identify and empower those mentors and coaches that can serve as strategic champions for innovation. Fostering innovation is a full-time job and requires a dedicated cadre.

Strategic Partnerships

In order to deliver innovations with strategic impact, leaders must invest in developing strategic partnerships with a wide variety of individuals and organizations. A broad set of experiences and backgrounds must converge in order to produce lasting impact.  The following types of members should be considered core members:

  • STEM Institutions and Educators – Nearly every military base has a local college or university with which it collaborates. The military benefits from these partners by leveraging the opportunities they provide for advanced education. The institutions benefit by gaining access to a student body resourced with military funding for education. By expanding these relationships to focus on delivering quality STEM courses, in enriching educational spaces, both parties can benefit.
  • Private-Public Partners – The defense industry actively seeks to deliver products and services designed to meet the needs of U.S. armed forces. At the same time, they often recruit and hire veterans for key positions once they leave the service. By inviting private companies to participate in innovation institutes they can increase their access to bottom-up driven design ideas. This could also expand the current Training With Industry (TWI) opportunities currently afforded to a small group of select military personnel.
  • Operational Forces – Operational forces are the Defense Department’s customers best able to articulate unique and emerging requirements for lethal, non-lethal, and protect-the-force, types of activities. Too often, programs of record, gain access to bottom-up, tactical driven problem statements, after a solution has been engineered. By designing innovation institutes next to, and in close cooperation with given operational units, each innovation institute can have a focused area of study and design. Similar to how the White House Office of Science and Technology has established collaborative institutes near U.S. centers of manufacturing excellence – so too can the military find centers of excellence from which to draw expertise and inspire new inventions. For example, an innovation institute housed as Ft. Hood may have greater emphasis on the design and engineering of new classifications of vehicle armor while another institute at Ft. Bragg may focus on the delivery of light-weight technologies meant for airborne deployments.
  • Military Hobbyists and DIY-ers – If you were to look for the most experienced engineers and pilots of drones in the U.S. military you might be surprised to find them in barracks rooms and not in UAV platoons. Today, a new generation of hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers (DIY) exist. They fly private drones. They build small robots. The program cheap electronics and they like to hack their kit. In order to attract this talent leaders must invite these hobbyists to participate. Many talented future engineers and creators never gain access to the tools of their craft because they are not traditional students. They may struggle in traditional learning environments. By attracting them to a non-traditional space the military can take advantage of the talent that already resides in its ranks.

Spaces to Innovate

Decades ago, many military bases invested in building and resourcing spaces for mechanics to work on cars and motorcycles. Some bases still have woodworking shops and spaces for various crafts. How many bases today, however, have a drone or robotics workshop? How many have cutting edge computer labs with cad-software, 3D printers, or machine learning programs? The time has come for garrison leaders to make strategic investments in spaces that attract talent, enable advanced STEM education, and invite innovation with the right incentives. Whereas military base autoshops may have met the needs of military hobbyists in previous years – today the military needs new spaces for people to develop technical skills in their free-time. The best way to do that is to offer them a space available to them after-hours and on the weekends, that is resourced with the tools and technologies they need to continue their crafts. There they will gain access to space, tools, and components they may not be able to afford otherwise. They will also find themselves in a context of innovation, surrounded by implicit advertisements for continuing education opportunities, and outreach programs.

  • How to Attract Talent – If you build it, they will come. The type of talent innovation institutes hope to attract are the strategic partners already discussed. Inside each of these groups are individuals who want to grow, collaborate, invent, and advance. By providing world-class equipment – adaptive spaces easily modified to meet the needs of next generation technologies – and the right cadre of mentors and coaches – you can attract the nascent talent in and around military installations.
  • Enabling STEM Education – As was previously noted, the vast majority of installations have partnerships with higher education institutes. The majority of courses offered on base, however, are general studies courses that do not require expensive lab equipment or high-end investments in technologies like computer labs. Where these academic institutions fail to provide such resources, the military should step in. By investing in the equipment required for hands-on STEM learning – the military can also provide a space for its hobbyists and DIY community.
  • Incentives to Innovate – Through private-public partnerships, opportunities for college-credit, and recognition for excellence in innovation, innovation institutes can provide incentives for all of its strategic partners. Hobbyist and DIY individuals will find incentives through access to equipment and expertise. Private-public partners will gain access to tactical and operational requirements – and motivated researchers eager to help solve their problems. Higher education institutions will find motivation through access to new educational spaces and an eager student body. By meeting the particular needs of each group – and buy resourcing a space for these groups to come together – leaders can provide new incentives for innovation.

Mentors and Coaches

After strategic partners come to the table, and once a space to innovate is established, the final missing pieces are the mentors and coachers. Without a vision for innovation, and individuals capable of fostering a positive climate to spur growth, the full potential of these institutes will not be achieved. Saying you are going to innovate is one thing. Developing and nurturing key relationships that can deliver the incentives to innovate is another. Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, have learned this along the way. That’s why so many of these mentor-heavy institutions only bring on CEOs of successful ventures themselves to serve as coaches. A certain level of experience and expertise will be required to ensure military innovation institutes succeed – but that does not mean that leaders should wait until they have found the perfect director before they begin working toward their development.


If the U.S. military wants to maintain its technological advancement over current and future adversaries it must continue to find ways to innovate and adapt. In both high-tech and low-tech warfare, whomever can successfully adapt the quickest will maintain their freedom of action and maintain the initiative. As encouraging as it is to see the rise of DIU-X opportunities. There is still more to do. Leaders at military institutions can begin by working to deliver their own innovation institutes by  building strategic partnerships, resourcing spaces to innovate, and recruiting the right mentors and coaches. All of this is achievable, it just requires leadership.

If you are interested in developing an innovation institute, please reach out. Myself, and others I have worked with, would be glad to help mentor and coach you in your efforts.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.



2 thoughts on “Creating Military Innovation Institutes

  1. In my career I found great success by finding new ways to use equipment that we already had. Examples might be using aircraft HF antennas as ground mobile antennas or using the KL-43 telephone encryption device as COMSEC and MODEM for tactical radio communications when we had nothing else or nothing better. It works.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Much greatness in this article and my favorite is “…the only thing lacking is the leadership to bring it all together.” Trying to inspire just that. Happy to partner with you as we crack the code.


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