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This interview originally appeared in a report from Innovation Leader, sponsored by Techstars, “Startup Engagement: Best Practices for Large Organizations.” Read the complete report here

Captain Steve Lauver is the Director of Technology Accelerators for AFWERX, a program that seeks to foster innovation within the US Air Force. Lauver oversees AFWERX’s accelerator, which links up active duty Air Force, Reserve Air Force, contracted personnel, and startups to solve problems.

Five Elements For a Successful Startup Initiative

In order for an innovation cell to exist within any organization, there need to be a couple of stakeholders aligned. We actually look at this. We call it the five-node process or the five-node approach.

  1. The first and most important node is what we think of as the entrepreneur. That’s the person who has the idea. … They’re the ones that are passionate about solving a problem and who understand the problem. …
  2. The second one—and this is really key to any innovation program—is leadership buy-in or top cover. If you’re doing something differently or against the grain, you will hit barriers. Having leadership [have] your back is so important for greasing the skids and removing those barriers when they pop up. …
  3. The next one is, in my opinion, are the unsung heroes in many cases. That’s the contract and legal support. … It’s the lawyers who are saying, “Is this legal, ethical, or not?” We need to have them aligned from the beginning of any new project all the way through to the end because, if we don’t, they’re going to become one of those barriers that we have to figure out a way around or to work with.
  4. A funding partner. Whenever we take on a project, we want to follow an actual real problem. … Having an organization that says, “I have a real problem. I’ve got funding to solve it, if you can find there’s a solution.” It’s super-important.
  5. The last one is the actual solution. … Either a tech solution or…a policy solution.

Define the Problem, Not the Solutions

We had a tendency to—and this is [common] across the world, not just in the government—see a problem and then to say what we think the solution is, instead of just saying the problem.

[H]ere’s an example. … If we want to see over a hill for whatever military purpose, what we have a tendency to do is to say, “Look, I need you guys to create me a satellite that’s going to be in geo orbit. It’s going to have these specifications.” Very specific, and, in reality, we just wanted to see over the hill. We don’t care if they come back with a hot air balloon or a carrier pigeon with a camera on it.

If they can give us the most affordable, most effective solution, whatever that looks like, that’s great. [We are] shifting towards a culture of telling companies our problems, and less so what we think the solutions look like [to] solve that problem. …

Advice for Other Government Innovators

The first one would be, “Come talk to us,” for sure. Talk to anyone that’s done it before, because we make so many mistakes. We make tons of mistakes. We’re fortunate to have a culture from leadership down that says, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Just fix them fast, and move forward…”

The second…is just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them. There’s an “it factor” when you’re talking to people in any organization, but especially in the Department of Defense or in any particular service…when you talk to somebody, you say, “Wow, this person is inspired. They get it. They want to make a difference.”

… Get a small group [of those kind of people] together and then just start to talk about it. It’s like primordial soup. You just get the right people together and something good will happen. … Just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them.


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