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WashU Students are Tackling Problems for the Department of Defense

Nancy Nigh
January 27, 2021

This spring, WashU students will be working with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to tackle some major challenges. Problems such as: moving people and supplies through checkpoints in a secure way, making sense of disparate data to find patterns, helping pilots quickly acclimate to a variety of aircraft, and reducing technology downtime by using IT data to create proactive solutions.


These might sound like the types of problems that any number of large companies face, but they are also DoD problems. And students in the new class, Innovating for Defense, will have a crack at defining these problems and working on solutions.


This inter-disciplinary entrepreneurial course gives students the unique opportunity to solve real problems facing the DoD and the U.S. Intelligence Community. The course is open to students from McKelvey School of Engineering and Olin Business School who want to solve real problems for real customers in real-time.

One major goal of this class is to bring together Olin and McKelvey students and instructors. The class (consisting of roughly 10 Olin students and 10 McKelvey students) is co-taught by Douglas Villhard, Professor of Practice in Entrepreneurship at Olin, and Peggy Matson, Professor of Practice, Sever Institute, McKelvey.


According to Matson, "The goal here is to open it up and sanction the idea of a cross-school class so students know it will be half and half, and that's part of the beauty. It all needs to come together. We want to learn from each other."


Each class problem has a dedicated DoD sponsor who will be regularly engaged with the team. Student teams will have a lot of interaction with their DoD sponsor, conducting over 50 customer discovery interviews to get to the heart of their problem.


Student teams will learn to use the Lean Startup methodology and Mission Model Canvas, made famous by Stanford University, to iteratively cut through the complexity. “The biggest challenge is teaching the difference between a problem and a solution.” says Villhard, “A reason why a lot of new companies fail is they fall in love with a solution really quickly. But we will be teaching students to fall in love with the problem so that they can come up with many different solutions and then ultimately pick the right one. It will be a big win if the teams can properly define the business problem facing the DoD sponsor, and an even bigger win if they can produce a workable solution.”


The Innovating for Defense course is building on the partnership with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), and includes the recently awarded National Security Academic Accelerator grant which seeks to launch new ‘dual-use ventures’ from the University’s existing intellectual property.


Jake Laktas, University Program Director at WashU, representing NSIN says, “This course’s model is unique because it can be an equally valuable learning experience for DoD partners as it is for the students. University problem solvers who are unencumbered by existing thought processes can lend brand new approaches and unique contributions to our nation’s most difficult technology and security challenges."


It is interesting to note that a student does not have to be a citizen of the United States to take this course and none of the DoD problems are confidential. “None of these business problems are classified. It is not innovating for war, or something secret; it is innovating for large organizations. It will teach students what the DoD is, how to interact with it, how to support it, and how to ultimately support the economy. It's almost like a mirror of the commercial market when you consider how many different things there are to do within the DoD.” says Villhard.


Ultimately, the course was created to introduce entrepreneurial thinking to students and introduce the concept of interdisciplinary teams. According to Laktas, “It is very much a leading priority for NSIN to help strengthen the WashU student and faculty relationships with local DoD stakeholders. There is a concerted effort by the engineering school and the business school to grow the exposure of the academic community to NGA and Scott Air Force Base priorities, and this class is the first of its kind to accomplish that.”


These students will gain hands-on experience that can be useful in any work situation in the future and will look excellent on their resumes. It teaches how to seek out problems, find solutions, and consider monetization. Villhard explains that this is the baseline approach to how to think like an entrepreneur. “It gets everybody thinking that we don't have to accept that the way things are is the way they always have to be. It gets us thinking that we can be better and be innovative and solve these problems. And we might be able to do it in a for-profit way; to create more value not just for the DoD but for the economy. It's an altruistic approach.”