Venture-backed Startups Will Build the Defense Technology the Free World Needs Right Now

Josh Manchester
10 min readJun 13, 2019


We Don’t Need the FAANGs to Disrupt the Primes

“The U.S. military might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”

The National Defense Strategy Commission reached this grim conclusion in its 2018 assessment of the Pentagon’s military strategy and its weapon programs. Congressional leaders of both parties selected the commissioners, half by the Republicans, half by the Democrats. All the commissioners were eminent former senior leaders in the Defense Department from Democratic and Republican administrations. Their unanimous conclusion was that the Pentagon is failing to prepare for the future and that “the United States will soon face a national security emergency.”

China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have collectively deployed thousands of cheap but deadly missiles that today can devastate the archipelago of regional bases from which an increasingly obsolete U.S. military is designed to fight. China and Russia are also making rapid advances in hypersonic missiles, quantum computing, and deep learning, with stated goals to use all of these for military purposes.

Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2019.

The case of China is particularly worrisome. Over the past three decades China’s defense spending has doubled roughly every eight years, with a focus on naval, air, and space systems geared for offensive operations. China’s leaders maintained the pace of this astonishing military buildup even when the United States imposed across-the-board defense cutbacks on itself following the Great Recession. Upon ascending to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping departed from his more prudent predecessors and adopted much more aggressive foreign and national security policies, policies that aim at the sovereign rights of China’s neighbors in East and South Asia. Judging by its actions alone, China under Xi apparently believes quite strongly in the utility of military power.

Losing a war against China or Russia would entail more than a horrendous loss of lives. It would result in a world where the United States, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the NATO countries and other democracies lose control over their affairs.

The unsustainable nature of the tech-defense relationship

With U.S. defense spending exceeding $700 billion per year, how could the United States be on the brink of a national security emergency? Simply put, America’s national security competitors are outflanking an Industrial-Age U.S. military machine that, like a lumbering dinosaur, is not adapting fast enough to its changing environment. The Pentagon desperately needs rapid innovation. Yet the current defense industry structure is not compatible with U.S. venture capital and high-growth technology industries for several reasons:

· The U.S. military’s industrial base is centered on a few huge oligopoly suppliers known within the Beltway as “the Primes” — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. These companies, ancient by tech startup standards, have optimized themselves to sustain a 20th century Industrial Age World War II-style force structure which supports the political decision-makers across the country who appropriate the funding that industrial base receives. The Primes are great at building very large platforms that cost billions of dollars and take 15–30 years to field. The Primes are also historically heavy on hardware talent and much lighter on software talent.

· The Primes receive the vast majority of defense spending. Defense budgets have historically not unlocked for startups. While a defense private equity industry exists to aggregate small companies and flip them downstream to the Primes, venture capital investors, who have a much higher return threshold, know that it’s hard to have venture outcomes (in other words, to make money) when a company can’t win large market share or survive as a stand-alone business.

· Venture-backed tech industries have matured as an asset class in peacetime and most mainstream U.S. venture firms in existence today do not have institutional cultures or histories that include defense innovation, apart from cybersecurity.

· Major tech companies, like the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Microsoft too), are generally unwilling to work on defense related projects, and sometimes must deal with employee protests when they do.

· Many observers perceive this as an indicator that software engineers generally don’t want to work on defense-related innovation.

· Finally, in a bizarre set of twists, some of the organizations that comprise the Limited Partners of venture capital firms (the blue chip endowments and foundations of the U.S. Eastern establishment, often founded on the fortunes of great American industrialists from decades ago, along with public pension funds throughout the country) are sometimes accidentally funding Chinese defense technology while often restricting their U.S. venture managers from making defense investments. Foundations and endowments in particular often have negotiated Limited Partnership Agreements with the venture firms they finance precluding them from investing in anything that could have military usage. The irony is that these same tax-exempt pools of capital are frequently investors in Chinese venture funds which provide software to make smarter and more deadly Chinese weapons and to the advanced surveillance systems that have turned China’s Xinjiang province into a virtual Uighur prison camp and a human rights disaster.

No single individual or entity has caused this state of events to transpire; it is simply the accumulation of various cultural aspects of the capital formation process of the venture industry and its portfolio companies.

Fortunately, we believe that almost all these characteristics will rapidly change over the next few years. But first let’s discuss some additional background.

Venture capital has come of age in a time of unprecedented peace

The U.S. venture capital industry is about 100 years old. Bessemer Ventures was formed in 1911 and originally had just the family fortune of Henry Phipps Jr., a co-founder of Carnegie Steel, as its sole limited partner. Despite these deep roots, the U.S. venture industry has only institutionalized as an asset class since the mid-1990s. Until then it was extremely clubby and very small. Sequoia Capital, KPCB, Charles River Ventures, and NEA were all founded in the 1970s and Accel Partners in the 1980s. But it has really only been since the mid-1990s (Benchmark Capital was founded in 1995, as was my own former firm, Foundation Capital) that the industry has institutionalized and grown substantially, first in the desktop computing and internet boom, and second during the combination of platform shifts over the last ten years that have given us mobile computing, social media, e-commerce, cloud computing, software-as-a-service and all of their associated new business models.

For a quarter of a century, the institutional, mainstream venture investing ecosystem, at the startup, venture firm and limited partner levels, developed business processes, mental models, networks, and expertise in certain technical areas and heuristics — in aggregate, an industry culture — that have created one of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy. The U.S. tech industry is also one of the most unique aspects of American life — and a powerful, difficult-to-replicate form of “soft power,” featuring an inclusivity for aspirational immigrant founders — a feature perhaps unequalled in human history.

From a long-term U.S. historical viewpoint, it is striking that the venture industry’s maturation has occurred during a unique period in American history when the United States had no major great power competitor, either ideologically or technologically. The Cold War ended in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Russia was in disarray for the next 15 years. This period of peace was not without its own unique trials, but the security challenges associated with terrorism, counterinsurgency, and lower-intensity military activity have not required the sort of Herculean societal and political efforts that were drawn upon during the Cold War or World War II. We should all be grateful every day that this has been the reality of the last 25 years.

A useful analogy might be made with gold. In 1933, President Roosevelt made it illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold. In 1934, Benjamin Graham published the first edition of Security Analysis. In January 1975 it became legal to own gold again. Graham died in 1976. It was therefore illegal to own gold during key years of the development of modern security analysis. From this gap came gold bugs — the weirdos who seemed to always talk about nothing else, and didn’t get invited to key social events.

No analogies are perfect but this captures some of the similarities between venture and defense today. Cybersecurity investors understand the cybersecurity parts of U.S. defense. But most mainstream Silicon Valley venture firms do not spend time on other parts of defense due to the industry’s institutionalization during this recent period of relative peace and American dominance — which has also been a time when the lion’s share of defense spending has gone to the Primes, as discussed.

Sadly, peace is ahistorical. Great power competitions are a feature of humanity, not a bug. Periods of time when a major power, or superpower, are not challenged in some profound fashion by one or more other powers, regardless of whether they are driven by fear, prestige, economic interest, or ideology — are, in short, rare when looking back on the sojourn of homo sapiens on planet earth. The period when the free world had a monopoly on power has now ended.

The tech-defense status quo is inverting

The only previously delineated area where we don’t expect much change is from the FAANGs. These massive companies are best viewed as small nation-states themselves with global stakeholders. For example, many of their employees are not U.S. citizens and may not want their employers engaged in U.S. defense work.

We think everything else will invert.

· We believe defense budgets will begin unlocking for young startups. Many key national security decision-makers in Washington are now seeking better, faster alternatives to the byzantine Pentagon acquisitions process. Thought leaders like Will Roper, in charge of the U.S. Air Force’s $40 billion annual research and acquisition budget, are eagerly welcoming the contributions that smaller, nimble venture-capital funded entrepreneurs can make. Roper, and others in the Pentagon, are reforming their practices to make it easier for genuine innovators to compete against the legacy defense oligopoly. When recently asked at a conference what problem keeps him up at night, Roper replied, “The industrial base.”

· Given the hardware roots of the Primes, they are ill-suited to provide solutions to many of the most pressing problems today. The Defense Department will increasingly allocate resources to startups solving software problems for which the Primes have no existing stock of machine learning engineers.

· As this happens some venture firms will experience cultural shifts toward more defense investing. As venture capitalists see that startups are receiving large purchase orders from various Defense Department units, they will develop strategies to deploy capital toward defense innovation. A good example is last week’s award by the Air Force of $121 million to Pivotal Software in San Francisco.

· Institutional limited partners as a group will likely slowly allocate away from any China-based manager who could be investing in Chinese military technologies. Some LPs with the freedom to do so may remove restrictions on defense investing from limited partnership agreements.

· We believe it is a myth that software engineers do not want to work on defense. This is a classic case of preference falsification, the social phenomenon in which people do not speak their true minds about a given topic, though their actions often indicate otherwise. We believe that talented engineers are often very attracted to defense-related work because it often offers the hardest problems to solve.

An enormous opportunity therefore exists for startups: to hire the engineers who don’t want to work for ancient and outdated Primes, and who aren’t very welcome at the FAANGS, but who wish to create the technologies that an increasingly eager democratic government needs to defend itself and its allies. Companies in our own portfolio, like SpaceX, Rigetti Computing, Anduril Industries, and Umbra Lab are executing this strategy.

The hardest technical problems today are defense-related

How can data from satellites, drones, land-based radar, ships, and other sources be stitched together, in real time, to find long-range missiles on mobile transporters, hiding among the background in cities, forests, and mountains?

How can friendly troops, who have separated into very small units in order to hide and survive, be connected to each other electronically, and be resupplied from historically long ranges?

How and to what degree and in what conditions should an adversary’s sensor networks be spoofed? What type of false electronic picture can be painted?

The aggregation of targeting data for an air wing takes 72 hours today and has a heavy human component. Can this complex optimization problem be solved autonomously, such that the targeting list for pilots is developed in 15 minutes?

How does a deployed force of perhaps 50,000 personnel, with planes, ships, and land forces, continue to fight when satellite links have been knocked out, and “reachback” to the U.S., for data processing, is no longer possible?

Can deep learning be used for crisis diplomacy? Put another way, since DeepMind’s AlphaZero can teach itself to move pieces forward on a board to win a game, can it learn to move them backwards, to de-escalate a crisis?

These problems, and many others, are asking to be solved by entrepreneurs.

Phase change

There is a looming breakdown in deterrence. If the U.S. defense establishment is unable to adapt to the new great power competitive environment, then adversaries will be tempted to grab for a fait accompli, with war the result. This has been the pattern since Homer wrote The Iliad; there is no evidence to conclude human behavior is different in the 21st Century.

We believe the prevention of this scenario involves rapid technical innovation. The defense environment is more favorable now for upstart firms than anytime in the past several decades. If you are a founder building technology to ensure the survival of government by consent, our firm would like to talk to you.

Josh Manchester is the founder and General Partner of Champion Hill Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm. Robert Haddick is the firm’s Director of Research. Both are former officers in the US Marines.



Josh Manchester

Founder at Champion Hill Ventures. Private tech investor. USMC. Duke.