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To IT security pros, hacking refers to the practice of gaining unauthorized entry into computer networks and systems. But to entrepreneurs, it means brainstorming and identifying clever fixes to common real-world problems: a process that students experience firsthand in Hacking for Defense, an experiential course at Chicago Booth that challenges them to solve pressing operational challenges facing the defense and intelligence communities.

“It’s an ideal space in which to experiment and expand your innovation and entrepreneurship tool kits,” notes adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship Will Gossin, who teaches the course alongside UChicago law professor Todd Henderson. “It also presents an opportunity to enjoy a novel experience, given that there’s a whole other swath of potential career pathways in government that students might wish to consider if they’re interested in new venture creation.”

Now in its second year at Booth, the 10-week course is administered through the US Department of Defense’s National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and focuses on dynamic problem-solving. Students are grouped into interdisciplinary teams that draw on each member’s expertise in myriad areas of practice, such as business, finance, and law. The teams are paired with top leaders at actual DOD organizations and intelligence communities and tasked with interviewing stakeholders, conducting research, and applying practical entrepreneurship skills to solve challenges faced by these high-level government sponsors. Recent assignments, for example, have given students the opportunity to help better manage aerospace operations at NASA, improve gender equity in the Wisconsin National Guard, and ease the transfer of knowledge between rotating teams deployed throughout East Africa for the United States Africa Command.

“It’s all about solving operational challenges,” Gossin explains. “Students may not realize it, but the defense industrial complex deals with many of the same challenges as startups—from rapidly shifting operating conditions to evolving technologies and changing social norms.”

“There’s a whole other swath of potential career pathways in government that students might wish to consider if they’re interested in new venture creation.”

— Professor Will Gossin

A Startup Incubator

In Fall of 2020, as part of the course, a group of students were tasked with helping satellite operators improve communications to prevent collisions among the skyrocketing number of satellites in space. Their solution—a platform that connects satellite operators across different organizations and allows them to more effectively share up-to-date information—proved to be a first-of-its-kind technology for the field. It also offered the team’s cofounders an immediate entrée to the aerospace industry.

With the help of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the students turned their platform into a startup called Stellatus Solutions. They first participated in the Polsky I-Corps program, which included a micro-grant from the National Science Foundation, and then the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge, the Polsky Center’s nationally-ranked startup accelerator program.

“Course alumni have the opportunity to utilize myriad follow-up opportunities within the NSIN network as well as seamlessly leverage other elements of Booth’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Gossin.

The students credit the programs with helping them turn their course research project into a nascent business with value to the industry. In June, just a year after its inception, their startup was acquired by the space simulation and analytics firm Slingshot Aerospace. Now, Stellatus is helping spearhead the industry’s first centralized collision-avoidance communications platform in space.

A Pivotal Shift in Thinking

Khushboo Sharma at Air Force Base
Weekend MBA student Khushboo Sharma

This year, current Weekend MBA student Khushboo Sharma got to visit Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, headquarters of the Pacific Air Forces, as part of Hacking for Defense. She worked directly with a number of officers and aviators, including members of the Aloha Spark team, which oversees innovation. Her assigned course challenge was to think through how they could integrate 5G and Internet of Things technology across the flight line.

In addition to touring some of Pearl Harbor’s most storied locales, she was also able to improve her strategies by going straight to the source, gaining valuable insights from commanders and active service members.

Being on-site and able to soak up feedback directly from her DOD partners caused a lightbulb to go off in her mind. Going into the trip, she thought the problems her partners faced largely hinged on coming up with new ideas and use cases for advanced technologies. Coming out of the visit, she realized that the real issue wasn’t a shortage of ideas, but rather knowing how to effectively prioritize and systematically invest in these innovations—a pivotal shift in thinking.

“The journey not only taught me about the different skill sets needed for entrepreneurship,” says Sharma. “It also taught me about the importance of having one-on-one conversations, approaching challenges from different perspectives, and sometimes even rethinking your basic problem statement. Getting this type of hands-on experience is important. I think that anyone considering going into entrepreneurship can benefit from finding opportunities like this to better put themselves in their partners’ shoes.”

“[Hacking for Defense] teaches you not only how to ask better questions and be a more practical problem solver, but also how to be a better leader.”

— Current student Khushboo Sharma

An Ecosystem of Sponsors

Gossin is especially proud of the fact that the Hacking for Defense course actively seeks to recruit veterans. It also invites students and government sponsors to work with elite coaches drawn from the university’s network and from the private sector. For instance, this year’s coaches include the head of pediatric cardiology at UChicago Medicine and the chief strategy officer of Argonne National Laboratory (also a Booth alum). It also encompasses several members of the Army’s Midwest Innovation Command, a reserve unit that focuses on promoting innovation in the region. In addition to offering advice, feedback, and support, these mentors all work to help provide students with greater context about what it’s like for soldiers, officers, and support staff to work within the field of government.

“Students gain access to a largely hidden network of high-level government officials and coaches that a typical university experience misses,” Gossin says. “While their project sponsor introduces them within the government and contractor spaces, we pair teams with specialized coaches to support their entrepreneurial thinking. For instance, this year’s cybersecurity team for the Missile Defense Agency was paired with the executive director for cybersecurity at the CME Group—a large trading market here in Chicago. So in addition to picking up all sorts of valuable real-world entrepreneurship skills, students build deep mentoring relationships and can dramatically expand their professional networks in new directions.”

While theory, weekly readings, and prerecorded lectures on critical concepts and methods are certainly part of the coursework, Gossin says the true emphasis here is hands-on experience—and learning to navigate complex organizational structures.

“It teaches you not only how to ask better questions and be a more practical problem solver, but also how to be a better leader,” Sharma adds. “If you’re thinking of becoming an entrepreneur or finding innovative ways to apply concepts from the corporate world to the government area, you’ll take away a lot from the experience.”


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