Nini Hamrick and Brett Granberg, Vannevar Labs — Founder Story

DFJ Growth
DFJ Growth News
Published in
14 min readJun 6, 2023


We have operating principles we recruit against. The first operating principle is always to put the mission first.

Even before their paths first crossed at Stanford Business School, mutual acquaintances were telling Brett Granberg and Nini Hamrick they ought to meet.

“In my first week, anytime I’d meet someone, they would say, “Oh, have you met Brett yet?” Hamrick recalled. “And I think the same thing was happening to Brett where people knew that we came from similar backgrounds.”

Granberg had spent a couple of years at In-Q-Tel, the non-profit VC firm that supplies technology to the intelligence community, while Hamrick had served seven years as a counterterrorism officer. When they met at Stanford, they connected immediately as they shared their common experiences and talked about the data and analytics problems that challenge the defense and intelligence communities.

It was that shared background in national intelligence that ultimately led to the 2019 founding of Vannevar Labs — which takes its name from Vannevar Bush, a technology pioneer who headed up the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II and predicted a device similar to modern-day computers or smartphones. A couple of years later, the company launched a software platform called Decrypt, an information collection platform that is quickly becoming a key tool for the government’s non-kinetic missions in strategic competition in Europe and Asia. Today, military units across more than 15 government bases are using Vannevar Labs’ flagship product in their daily information-gathering routines.

Together, they joined forces to help invent 21st-century technology that solves 21st-century national security challenges.

Q: Given your respective backgrounds in the intelligence and defense sectors, you could have continued on those trajectories and built successful careers. So why jettison all of that for the startup life?

Brett: When I was working with the CIA in 2016, it became clear to me within the first 12 to 18 months that it’s hard to fundamentally change how the government operates unless you are very, very senior. That means spending something like 30 years in the government and getting to a point where you have enough influence to make changes. To me, it seemed that it would be a lot easier to make big changes in terms of mission impact as an outsider.

Nini: I came to a similar conclusion. I’d been in government for seven years, working on counter-terrorism missions. The path ahead of me in government was to start managing teams and eventually divisions or larger parts of organizations, and before doing that, I wanted to see how people outside of the government built and ran great companies. I didn’t originally leave the government with the intent of starting a company. That really came about when I met Brett, and we started talking about ways to solve these problems through a startup lens. I had worked on incredibly important missions, and the people I was working with were some of the most talented I’d ever met. But at the same time, they really lacked great technology — that I knew existed commercially. I wondered why it hadn’t been deployed in the areas that I’d worked on. That was really the motivation to found Vannevar when Brett and I met in 2019.

Q: Talk about your early influences. Growing up, any moments stand out in terms of setting you on the paths that you ultimately chose?

Nini: I grew up in the Washington DC area with a lot of friends’ parents and family members serving in government. My dad was a US attorney in Baltimore working on criminal prosecutions. He also ran for public office in Maryland when I was growing up. He would bring me along to his campaign events and knocking on doors when I was three and four years old where he talked to people in Maryland about the problems they were facing. My grandfather had also served in the military and in public office. Early on, I felt drawn to public service.

Q: What pointed you toward national security?

Nini: Being in DC during the September 11th attacks in middle school when friends worried they’d lost their parents at the Pentagon. My dad lost a colleague from the FBI in the Twin Towers that day. It really was a turning point for me, and national security became the area where I wanted to have an impact. Outside of the national security space, my mother was a theater director who started her own consulting firm at the same age I was when we started Vannevar — 29 — training lawyers and their witnesses for trial. I don’t think I realized just how hard that was for her, creating a consulting firm from scratch in an area that had never really existed. Not until Brett and I started Vannevar did I understand what it actually looks like to do this from up close. Also, just appreciating the fact that despite having a small business, she had a big impact on people in some of the scariest moments of their lives, which was appearing in court. It’s a different kind of impact than national security, but looking back, I now realize my mom’s path may have been part of what inspired me to want to make a dent in the world and start something that didn’t exist before.

Brett: On the national security side, a big part of it was my grandparents. My grandfather lost an older brother in World War II, which had a big impact on him and the family. He was 10 or 11 when he lost his brother, who was only 18 or 19 years old at the time. My grandma, who grew up in Scotland and experienced the Blitz, was taught to run to her elementary school in zigzags to avoid German planes strafing public infrastructure. I had grown up in middle-class suburbs of Chicago and then Atlanta, and life was pretty easy. I didn’t have to worry about these things. I guess I’ve always felt as if I owed that to people like my grandpa’s brother and the people who I’ve since worked with that have given something so that I would not have to. That’s kind of what public service and defense is for me.

Q: The first time you two crossed paths was at Stanford Business School, one of you a former Intel officer, the other a former intelligence investor. Fair to say that you spoke a similar — if not the same –language? And did that make it easier for you guys to sit down and game out how starting a company might work?

Nini: We were some of the few people in our business school class who came from intel backgrounds. I remember taking a walk around campus with Brett, and he was asking me about some of the problems that I’d encountered in government as well as the ones that I wanted to solve. Our common language really emerged. He had seen this from the investor perspective, and I had seen it from an end-user perspective. Brett had also spent a lot of time thinking about how he would apply this in terms of starting a company, which was new to me. We connected immediately on the mission impact that we wanted to have.

Brett: It took me maybe two to three years to even see that it was possible to start a company. Nini was on the defense intelligence side. I was coming at it from the CIA side — and we were working on some of the same types of problems. I came into business school with the intention of starting something and started talking to everybody as soon as I got there.

Q: As you got to know each other and exchanged ideas, was the initial thought always to create machine learning/AI products for national security? Or did that develop over time?

Brett: We started with a very specific technology problem that counterterrorism intelligence officers like Nini and the people who I used to work with were experiencing. There was a machine learning component. At the time, it was Arabic language data that was stored in different formats. That made it difficult to exploit, but it was easily accessible by commercial companies that had spent a bunch of resourcing and computer vision in mission translation in other types of machine learning tools. I think the core concept behind Vannevar was that there are problems that are tractable or solvable when you take the best engineering talent that we have in Silicon Valley and point them at these problems. It’s possible to solve some of these really important missions. So, there were a lot of problems, and we picked one, in particular, to start with that had a machine learning component.

Q: Would you say that the intel and defense establishment is not up to the task of making sure that the US has state-of-the-art solutions when it comes to developing these sorts of tools?

Brett: It’s always been a joint government and industry partnership that’s created state-of-the-art defense technology. I don’t think it’s possible for the government or industry to get there on their own. Even during World War II or the space race in the 60s and 70s, we were at our best when the government partnered with technology companies or defense companies that had solid engineers who specialized in satellites or building aircraft or whatever was needed. That’s key.

Q: But the relationship between the government and Silicon Valley hasn’t been smooth.

Brett: When we started Vannevar, it was not popular in Silicon Valley to work with defense or the government. And that was part of the frustration. We had some of the best product and engineering teams in the world that had these skill sets and were not building tools for this mission. But it needed to get done. Somebody needed to do it. That was one of the gaps that we were trying to fill.

Q: Do you think that’s changing, or is it still an issue? And does it get in the way of hiring the best and the brightest candidates?

Nini: It’s changing. I remember this being a concern when we started the company. But there’s a generation of talented software engineers and product people who want to work on meaningful challenges like the ones you find in national security, and they are really motivated by the impact that our products have. I think there’s a generational shift going on right now in terms of moving from the counterterrorism world that I came from to strategic competition with nation-state adversaries. That allows companies like us to define a new category, which is how to build capabilities that help the US government compete with nation-states, support our allies in devastating conflicts like the one playing out in Ukraine, and deter other potentially devastating conflicts. That’s really motivational. As we talk about our mission with candidates, they really want to be a part of the solution.

Q: Before the advent of a tool like Decrypt, what would intelligence officers use to find patterns and battlefield information? It must have been a laborious process.

Nini: This is the brute force method that I described earlier, where analysts were manually sifting through information to recognize patterns. In the counterterrorism era, we were getting terabytes and terabytes of data generated from missions being conducted in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. That created a huge backlog of information. You end up trying to get through the information as fast as you can, staying up around the clock to process the data manually. With Decrypt, we’re not working on information coming off battlefields — that is the counterterrorism world that I came from. We’re working in the new national security domain — strategic competition with nation-states. Decrypt collects overseas information that would otherwise be hard for military teams to access directly in areas around the world that are increasingly contested. These teams are trying to work with allies and partners, use non-kinetic operations to compete, and deter future conflict, and Decrypt supports them across this spectrum of competition and deterrence.

Q: Given that, it must make your job easier to sum up your value proposition while sitting across the table from somebody from the government.

Brett: To succeed as a defense company, your product has to solve something that is a top three mission problem for enough people within the Department of Defense. Our value proposition got a lot easier when the government pivoted away from counterterrorism to China and Russia because we could immediately show people information that they otherwise did not have access to.

Q: What were your expectations of being startup founders?

Nini: I honestly didn’t have expectations. In some ways, I think that worked to my advantage because when Brett first proposed the idea of joining him on this journey, I had no assumptions about it. I just thought this sounds like an incredibly important mission that I’m being called on to do. I didn’t have criteria. I just knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. So, I dove in. Looking back, it is the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I’ve heard being a founder or part of an early-stage startup described as a kind of internal metronome set at an uncomfortable pace; it’s as if you’re on a treadmill and, every few months, you have to dial up the gauge to the next faster pace. There’s a constant evolution where the role asks more and more of you and stretches you in hard ways at each phase. And it’s also something that’s been really, really rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Brett: I kind of knew what I was getting into because I had seen other startups through my previous job and had a chance to watch how other founders operated. I got to see across several companies what seemed to work and what didn’t. It’s insanely hard. For me, the difficult part of a startup is that I find I have to think about everything all the time in order to do my job well. Not just during the work hours but also at night, at dinner, and over the weekends. There’s always processing that’s happening in the background.

Q: Let’s talk about what that intensity imposes. You’re working on products related to national security. Does that involve a different or special set of challenges or obligations knowing that if your product works or fails, that result imposes very different real-world consequences from, say, developing a better way to do microfinances?

Brett: Sometimes there are things that happen that are extremely time-sensitive and mission-sensitive. And it doesn’t matter when that thing happens — when it happens, you have an obligation to support and work on that problem. When critical things are happening that could involve life or death, you have to orient yourself that way. So yeah, there’s an increased intensity based on the mission that we work on which I find really rewarding.

Nini: I think that what adds to this sense of intensity on the team is that our intensity is matched by the user groups we work with. They have an insane urgency and fire. They want to be experimenting and fielding new capabilities. They want to be moving faster and we can help them do that. So, it’s not as if our team is sprinting way ahead of where our users want to be. They’re right there with us. Our job really is to give them the ability to run through walls within their organizations and deploy capability more quickly than would otherwise be possible in a large bureaucracy.

Q: Does a sense of mission, if you will, impact your approach as you build out the company culture and vet job applicants?

Brett. One hundred percent. We have operating principles we recruit against. The first operating principle is always to put the mission first. We select people who are almost irrationally focused on that. A lot of the people we hire come from the military who have been deployed and know what that urgency and importance is about. The downside is sometimes we select people who work too hard. Like they’re too mission-driven, and it’s very easy for people to over invest and burn themselves out. We try to balance that out culturally by making it okay for people to pull off the gas pedal. And we’ve set up our benefits and PTO policy to try and support that. I think we still have a way to go, but we absolutely recruit for people who feel that same sense of mission urgency.

Q: What about you? How do you deal with the pressure when you manage to find downtime?

Nini: My husband comes from a family that is obsessed with fly fishing. It’s like a true religion for my husband and my in-laws. So, around the time Brett and I founded the company, I also started fly fishing. It’s incredibly meditative. When I’m on a river catching fish, or not even catching fish, but just out there and it’s quiet — I can spend a whole day doing just that and feel restored afterwards.

Brett: For me, it’s just taking blocks of time off where I don’t need to be doing anything. I can just spend that time at home, catching up on personal stuff. And I also play a lot of music. That helps me connect with something outside of work.

Q: What do you play?

Brett: I grew up playing guitar in blues bars around Atlanta.

Nini: I’m pretty sure Brett’s second career is going to be playing guitar in Nashville.

Q: What’s your favorite book?

Brett: For me, it’s probably Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. He dropped out of the Rhodes Scholarship program to become a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. The book is super-long but really great.

Nini: I would say The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, which came out around the year I was graduating college. It included a profile of the former colleague of my dad who I mentioned was killed in the Twin Towers. It was meaningful for me and really ignited my interest in national security.

Q: Favorite movie?

Nini: Zero Dark Thirty. Female director, strong female lead. It’s a dark, troubling movie, but as Brett knows, I love the main character, Maya. After we raised our seed round, he gave me a mug with an image of Maya and one of Maya’s quotes from the movie that probably is too profane to share for this article.

Q: What about you, Brett?

Brett: I would say Everything Everywhere All at Once is probably my current favorite movie.

Q: Who is the one person in your lives that has had the most impact on your professional careers?

Brett: For me, it’s probably Dan Gwak, who was my boss at In-Q-Tel. He was a phenomenal boss. He was in investment banking and private equity, and then he did something I have never heard another person do: he quit his job, took like a 90% pay cut, enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was deployed to Afghanistan. He was wounded in Afghanistan, came back and graduated from Harvard Business School, and then was my boss at In-Q-Tel. He taught me everything I needed to know in my job and let me get after it. It’s hard to be around him and not want to do better. He’s the epitome of low ego, high output.

Nini: In my last 18 months in government, I got to work directly for the then-head of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) — Nick Rasmussen — and Nick took some big bets on me that put me in a position to do what I’m doing now. The team Nick had assembled at the top of NCTC also really inspired me, partly because there were a number of senior women in positions of influence. Our COO, the general counsel, the head of technology — these were all badass women who I really admired and mentored me, and it helped me see myself in that role when I left the government and was starting Vannevar.