This Company Is Trying to Turn Federal Agencies into Startups

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Palo Alto-based BMNT Partners teaches agencies how to design the solutions to their challenges.

What started as a single Stanford University class focused on solving federal problems has become a burgeoning operation instilling the Lean Startup methodology in government.

BMNT Partners, a Palo Alto-based company, is walking various government agencies through the process of identifying pressing problems and then creating teams that compete against each other to design the best solution. The best of those products might warrant future investments from the agency.

“We never really set out to do to that way,” Pete Newell, a managing partner at BMNT, told Nextgov. Newell is on the board of a class called Hacking for Defense, or H4 for short. The program asks federal agencies to provide its students with real-life, government-themed problems that they could solve using the Lean Startup methodology, which involves creating minimum viable products after conducting extensive market research. Most agencies told Newell they’d provide those real-life problems only if he and BMNT created a version of the class internally so that they too could learn the methodology, he said.

In the past 15-16 months, BMNT has run about 35 H4 programs at agencies including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx.

The process begins when an agency presents BMNT with an array of problems it faces internally; BMNT staff helps them narrow down the problem scope, conduct market research to identify the problems that could pique interest from commercial companies, and then track down experts within the agency who can evaluate the solutions. BMNT also helps agencies create various teams of three or four employees who can start building minimum viable products. Newell explained those employees often are selected from the pool within the chief information officer’s or chief technology officers’ staffs.

At the Air Force, BMNT’s H4 program led to the cancellation of an operations contract; an internal team built a series of minimum viable products, and used the money that would have been directed to the operations contract to run a pilot on their products, Newell said. About 17 solutions from various agencies have sought additional funding for specific products after undergoing the H4 program.

In the academic and commercial world, Hacking for Defense is meant to provide college- and graduate-level engineering students with specific public-sector challenges, potentially as a way to get them interested in joining government to pursue government problems while working in the commercial tech sector. Over the past few years, the class has expanded beyond Stanford to other schools across the country, and the State Department and other agencies have also signed on to provide their own challenges.

Newell, a retired colonel who formerly directed the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, said one of agencies’ biggest problem-solving challenges is not being able to form the right team. In the private sector, he said, “if I couldn’t form a group that had the right pathway to a potential solution, then it wasn’t worth starting.”

In government he added, “[we] have to teach people if you can’t form a group around [a specific problem] with stakeholders and supporters, you’re not going anywhere.”