Aaron Pierce
Feb 2, 2018 · 4 min read

In the 1930s United States Airmen were pushing the envelopes of innovation, risking life and blindness as they took airplanes higher and faster than they had ever flown before. As these pilots broke altitude records they became plagued with headaches from dangerous sun glare and were in desperate need of a fix. In 1936 the problem was presented to lens manufacturer Bausch & Lomb. Later that year they invented Aviator sunglasses, giving military pilots the tool they needed to continue to break barriers. By 1937 Bausch & Lomb would spin out a new company, Ray-Ban, offering the Aviator to the public market, forever changing fashion.

F.W. Hunter, Army test pilot, Douglas Aircraft Company plant at Long Beach, Cal. 1942. Alfred T. Palmer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Innovation in the 21st century is progressing as fast or faster than it did in the 1930s, but the current ability to deliver private sector innovation to the military and government presents barriers that must be overcome. This is especially true for young and lean startup companies, the bedrocks of modern disruption, as they try to conduct business with the government. These startups lack the time and excessive resources that are needed for modern contracting, but elements within the defense sector recognize that they too cannot afford these barriers.

The first ever Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the U.S. Air Force is working with both the Department of Defense and private-sector companies to break through barriers of government contracting. This Accelerator focuses on startup companies that, like Bausch & Lomb, create products that impact both military and commercial markets, but it differs in that commercialization is at the forefront of the agenda. The ability to deliver to the commercial market is a crucial point to the evaluation of these companies. The commercialization emphasis benefits the defense sector through cheaper and iterative products that are off the shelf or near off the shelf while focusing the growth potential and scale for these companies in the broader commercial market. This is a win-win strategy for success on both sides of government and business.

The microwave oven, GPS, Epi-pen auto-injectors, the computer, Jeep, and many more products eventually spun out of military innovation. These products showed up in different generations, but they all play an integral role in today’s world. Everyone reading these words has been impacted by the commercial application of an innovation that originated on the government or military side of industry and most of those products serve a crucial and non-military use. But these products were not specifically designed or built with the guiding criteria that they have a commercial market to serve. A commercial application was not directly emphasized from day one. For instance, defense funds fueled the development of the first computers in the 1930s and 40s, but the first commercial computer was not introduced to market until 1951. Similarly, defense funding laid the foundations of the internet in the 1960s, but the Internet was not commercialized until the late 1980s and early 90s. Imagine what two decades of potential will bring if the introduction of initial technology includes dual-purpose commercialization from day one.

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library).

I am excited to serve alongside forward-thinking entrepreneurs in the military and industry as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for this inaugural Techstars program. Every single company comes to this Techstars Accelerator with commercial potential. This strategy presents a fascinating forward-thinking philosophy where company or product origins don’t spin out of the military, but are instead favored as dual purpose innovations that have the potential for significant adoption. This model utilizes the innovation of the military while offering significant potential for market adoption and scale. The program looks to these companies to solve pain points for the government while delivering that same value directly to commercial customers that share the same or similar pains.

Techstars recruited me to support the companies to further refine their commercial approaches, advance market opportunities, and hone in on their customer discovery process for clients inside and outside the DoD. I’m doing this while Techstars encourages ongoing development at my startup, Pierce Aerospace, where I am working to develop drone identification. Drones are my specialty, but I am working with the companies to help build and scale their businesses to serve unmanned systems and beyond, further accelerating areas of advanced commercialization.

The refinement of business models in this government contracting space is not an easy task to achieve and both sides of the equation have challenges to overcome, but after two weeks into the program, I see a robust roadmap for ongoing innovation. I’m confident that if this philosophy is adopted, implemented, and executed that its legacy will have far-reaching potential in the advancement of life in the 21st century and beyond. After all, Aviators are still cool.

Aaron Pierce flying in Costa Rica. Photo: Rebecca Street.

Aaron Pierce

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Founder: Pierce Aerospace, Techstars EIR, professional drone pilot, photographer, geographer, and SciFi fan. I ❤ motorsport & aviation. www.pierceaerospace.net