Pentagon’s Former Top Hacker Wants His Startup to Inject Some Silicon Valley into the Defense Industry

Then-Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch speak during the JEDI Cloud Industry Day March 7, 2018.

Then-Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch speak during the JEDI Cloud Industry Day March 7, 2018. EJ Hersom/Defense Department

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"If the nerds don’t show up and work on the mission of national defense...then I’m not sure who will," says Chris Lynch, of Rebellion Defense.

Chris Lynch arrived at the Pentagon as an exotic outsider — the department’s resident hoodie-wearer, as Ash Carter put it. Now he and two co-founders have a defense-software startup with its own exotic aims. 

Then-SecDef Carter hired Lynch in 2015 to start up the Defense Digital Service and infuse the Pentagon with some Silicon Valley-style agility and innovation. At DDS, Lynch attacked longstanding bottlenecks with a “SWAT team of hackers” who ran successful bug bounty programs and helped reshape IT policies — including helping DOD leaders to launch the gigantic Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, cloud program. 

Now Lynch, who left DDS in April, has launched Rebellion Defense, a D.C.-based firm that seeks to sell software for defense and national security applications. It has financial backing from an array of Silicon Valley stars, including former Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Founders Fund, the venture capital outfit of PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Facebook co-founder Sean Parker.

We talked to Lynch and co-founders Oliver Lewis and Nicole Camarillo about Rebellion’s efforts to make working on Pentagon projects appealing to the Stanford sneaker set. 

D1: There are lots of defense contracting companies, many that sell software. How is Rebellion different?

Lynch: We really wanted to build a place that's a strategic partner for software and technology, that just simply works, in defense. And we want to work on things that are very important to where we see the Department heading. 

We self-fund all of our own products. We have capitalized and built Rebellion in such a way that we can choose what we work on and what we build. That gives us a lot of opportunity to create things that are impactful to the mission.

Lewis: One of the really big differences is the people. We’re pulling Silicon Valley software engineers into this problem. So if you're graduating out of Stanford computer science, you look at the offers on the table, you’re looking at Microsoft, Netflix, all the big tech companies.

We want to position Rebellion as the alternative to that kind of mission. So if you want to go and optimize food delivery, great, you can change the world. But if you really want to do something that is about defending democracy, you can come to Rebellion. We want to be a first choice for that kind of incredible world-leading talent. And that's different to a lot of the existing companies.

Camarillo: We’re trying to lay some kind of foundation so that Silicon Valley actually starts to care about working on these problems with DOD in this space. For them, it’s not a lucrative proposition right now. If we can do anything to facilitate the process of working with DOD as a customer easier, then maybe we can open the aperture to Silicon Valley jumping in and stepping up to these problem sets.

D1: DOD has tried to become a more attractive customer in recent years, but startups still worry about lengthy contracting cycles and intellectual-property issues. What else? 

Lynch: If you have a software-as-a-service product that you offer to commercial customers, they can just swipe the credit card and you're making money on day one. Here, you have to know different types of things. You have to know what the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] is, you have to know what DoD 5000 is. You have to know what an [Other Transaction Authority] is. These different avenues are all very complex.

In defense, we talk quite a lot about the future. But there's also the now. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, autonomy, all these things are not really future problems; they're problems that are occurring at this moment. We're dealing with these things right now.

Who does the Department turn to for those types of technologies, now? We wanted to provide the place where the individuals who literally build those technologies that we think about every day to come and work in defense, where we could actually have nerds show up at the table and work on problems of impact and be proud of what they're working on, and not get caught up in the drama of, should we even be working with defense? If the nerds don't show up and work on the mission of national defense, then we have a huge other problem because if we don't show up and work on these things, then I'm not sure who will.

When you think about, the Department has lots of people and companies it can turn to go for certain types of solutions. But once you get down to AI, or any number of other different types of technologies, it's not quite clear who they turn to.

D1: It sounds a little bit like what you were doing at the Defense Digital Service but now with more people and with VC funding.

Lynch: When I showed up and started DDS, I came from a background with no family or real connection to either military or government. So I had a lot to learn. One was, top talent makes all the difference. Having incredibly competent people who are mission-driven show up and actually get shit done, work on real things, that can change the world. But it's also about having competent people that are building incredible products that are delightful to use, which is not something you normally hear about when you think about products for defense.

D1: What product lines are you working on?

Lynch: We're very interested in technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision...We’re also interested in products that offer high scalability, the ability to process very large sets of information and aid the incredible military and civil servants that are working on the mission inside the Department.

D1: How does that overlap with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, (JAIC)?

Lynch: When you look at things like the JAIC, it's important to remember that all of these technologies that the Department relies upon now—and will rely upon in five, 10, 15, 20 years—Those will be built by a group of people who may never come and directly serve in the military, and may never have an opportunity to come work directly as a federal employee.

If there's a new technology that is on the horizon that we see could aid a warfighter, or could help in the national defense mission, we can just simply choose to start up a product line working on that with some of the greatest engineering talent in the entire world. That's a super power. That's not a super power that will be found in the Department of Defense, no matter what. There are just different rules, restrictions and regulations that they have to abide by.

D1: Are you competing with Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman, which are actively acquiring Silicon Valley startups?

Lynch: We see ourselves as a software and technology company building products as a strategic partner for the national defense space, not as a defense contractor.

The venture model has a number of different outcomes to it. One of which is, a company could be bought. I think that it is absolutely fantastic that these companies like Lockheed Martin are setting up venture offices and investing. But we want to build something that is not here today. We don't want to build a company that gets acquired too soon. We don't want to build a company that is acquired when it's small. We want to build a company that can go public or is much bigger. We want to build something that is enduring.

I think that that's important because if we don't have companies like that in this space, then I don't think that we're [as in the United States] is going to continue to attract the talent that we need in order to be successful and to protect that we love about the United States and our allies and our partners.

Camarillo: Also, acquiring startups doesn't make you a software company. And it doesn't inherently change the DNA of your business, or what you are, or what you’re good at. Because even if you acquire the technology, you're not acquiring the talent along with it to grow those things. I think that's a huge challenge for those companies.

D1: Can we talk about who your backers are?

Lynch: We have Venrock and we have Innovation Endeavors as our co-leads for Rebellion. We have Eric Schmidt on our board of directors, and we have a host of other amazing VCs and investors [including Founders Fund] in the round as well.

One of the most interesting and unique things here is that we are a venture-backed company, building an organization that is focused on national defense, in Washington, D.C., that sees selling to defense as the primary business that we are in, and commercial [products] is an opportunity at some point down the line. That’s is very different than how most companies are built.

D1: What are investors’ expectations of Rebellion? Are they different from what VCs typically expect from Silicon Valley startups?

Lynch: I feel like big ideas take patient capital. If you want to disrupt something, you have to be willing to try something new. There are a number of companies that have made headways into defense and we talk a lot about companies like SpaceX, right? I think that when you look at companies like that, it just takes a slightly different approach to what you're looking at as the horizon on the investment. 

If we can build products at an order of magnitude faster than what the Department is used to, then we also get to be a part of helping them in their goal. Because we can actually show results after a month, after two months, after three months. Where in some cases, the Department has expectations that run on timelines closer to years.

Lewis: And it's showing the Department that they can demand as much from technology as the rest of the world already knows it can.

D1:  What’s coming in the next year?

Lynch: We're going to continue to build amazing things. We're going to hire some of the best talent that there is in the entire country. We're a really big company that just happens to be smaller right now. We've already been well underway on our research lab around a bunch of things on artificial intelligence, looking to hire the lead of the AI lab. We've got other product lines that are going to be starting. There's a lot to do. It's a big mission.

D1: What will the Pentagon’s plans for enterprise-level cloud do for the things you’re working on?

Lynch: Consider that a 16-year-old who is looking to create a new software-as-a-service application in their spare time, can go swipe a credit card and have access to something that is very difficult for nearly anybody at the Department of Defense to have access to.

D1: But wouldn’t a system of smaller cloud contracts be more lucrative for a software-supplying defense contractor, in that it would need more work and more fixes?

Lynch: I think that the Department needs a very simple, strong vision and strategy in which the capabilities in software and technology that it needs, consumes, builds, deploys, work in a very simple and elegant way. And the more complicated any solution is to provide that service I think is a terrible idea.

Lewis: If you're going to attract the best technical minds in the world, surprise surprise, you need to have intellectual integrity.