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National security meets business startup methods in ASU course

graphic of an air force base

Above: Students create real-world solutions to a wide range of national security operational challenges in the Hacking for Defense course at Arizona State University. Multidisciplinary groups of graduate and undergraduate students work with Department of Defense agency representatives who pitch problems and other experts who provide context students need to create effective solutions. By the end of the semester, the student teams learn to apply lean startup business methodologies and create prototypes of minimum viable products. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU and Shutterstock

Hacking is usually something federal defense agencies are working to prevent. But in one Arizona State University course, it’s one of the methods being used to bring multidisciplinary innovation and business startup practices to national security efforts.

Hacking for Defense, known as H4D, came to ASU in the spring of 2020 through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense National Security Innovation Network, or NSIN. The NSIN aims to work with nontraditional problem-solvers to generate innovative solutions to national security challenges. ASU is one of more than 31 universities with an H4D course.

H4D is a joint venture between ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and InnovationSpace. It is taught by Fulton Schools Senior Lecturer Chao Wang and Senior Sustainability Scientist and Assistant Research Professor Michael Simeone, who is also involved in a variety of multidisciplinary endeavors at the university.

Undergraduate and graduate students in engineering, design, sustainability, business and other areas are encouraged to take the course, which covers a variety of different perspectives in generating prototypes.

“With ASU being ranked No. 1 in innovation for the sixth year by U.S. News and World Report, this type of class experience emphasizing customer discovery, government/industry/university collaborations and interdisciplinary work is particularly desirable to foster a culture of innovation,” Wang says.

Students in the course work with a wide range of Department of Defense agencies to find innovative solutions to problems of a non-classified nature. During the two semesters the course has been offered, students have teamed with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and several U.S. Air Force bases in Arizona, California, Washington and Ohio.

“The problems we received from NSIN are different every semester,” Wang says. “They try to source local problems and address inefficiencies and inconveniences in current DOD operations.”

Last fall, students tackled a range of projects one might not expect to relate to national security concerns: equipment use and its relation to cultural history in Italian wetlands, equal access to mission materials for California National Guard members, an accessible aircraft maintenance training program and a solution for U.S. Air Force pararescue teams to noninvasively measure the core body temperature of service members wounded in combat.

Once problems are posed by DOD sponsors, students split into groups based on their interests and get to work creating a minimum viable product by the end of the semester.

“Student teams learn how to apply lean startup principles to discover and validate customer needs and to continually refine solutions,” Wang says.

The Lean LaunchPad Methodology used in the course teaches students the startup concepts to solve very complex real-world problems, rapidly iterate while finding a product-market fit, understand all stakeholders and factors for value, and deliver a minimum viable product that matches customer needs. Overall, it is a repeatable model the students can use to launch other technology solutions in the future.

Reece Piper, a graduate student studying innovation and venture development, was looking for a course to focus on entrepreneurship and problem-solving to apply his core program knowledge. So, he signed up for H4D in the 2020 fall semester. As the sole non-engineer among his teammates — electrical engineering undergraduate Kyle DeSousa (who is now a graduate student studying innovation and venture development) and mechanical engineering undergraduate Nathan Moorman — Piper had to brush up on his technical skills, but he was able to contribute to the multidisciplinary team through his background in finance and design.

Piper says he was “in no way, shape or form” familiar with pararescue or measuring core body temperature. But the course is designed to help teams be successful in addressing the problem posed by their sponsor from the Air Force Research Laboratory.

A key component of the process is conducting interviews with their sponsor, mentors, experts, stakeholders and potential users to understand the real problem rather than rushing into a solution that may not meet the sponsor’s needs. Students who have taken the course say it’s a great way to improve essential communication skills and develop effective solutions.

“[I had to learn] everything from the challenges of battle to technological sensor capabilities,” Piper says. “The main thing we learned was that we needed to assume we knew nothing and ask for detailed explanations of everything from our more than 30 interviews.”

Through this extensive research with experts and stakeholders, the team learned the challenge was greater than just measuring core body temperature. In addition to human physiology, the team’s early semester work involved learning about issues with extreme environments, data transfer, integration with the BATDOK patient monitoring system, the military’s need for a multi-use tool and the shortcomings of various technologies they had considered.

When researching applicable technologies, the team learned about a company that had a temperature sensor technology developed for athletes that checked many of the boxes for a viable solution. They decided to license the technology to adapt it for use in combat through their own company. Thus, the H4D “Temperature Check” team became Isocore Technologies.

Their final minimum viable product was a ruggedized device (one that can withstand harsh environments) equipped with a heat flux sensor, an electrocardiogram chip and an algorithm to determine core body temperature and heart rate from the sensor and chip data. The device is placed on the torso with a single-use adhesive, can connect to the BATDOK system with Bluetooth technology and charge wirelessly.

Restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic made interviewing potential users of their product more difficult. And even though Piper completed the entire course online from Cape Town, South Africa, he says he thrived in the course and gained valuable hands-on entrepreneurial experience.

“I feel my team and I really stepped up to the plate for this course and delivered a great project that was so comprehensive,” Piper says. “We are still running with the idea post-course.”

The team plans to continue working with the DOD and Air Force Research Laboratory to bring the product to the pararescue community and perhaps even to a wider community of firefighters and others who could benefit from core body temperature monitoring.

After the H4D course ends, students can choose to pursue additional programs, grants and career opportunities through NSIN to continue their work and extend the impact of their projects. These include Vector, Impact Fund, Maker Pilot and X-Force fellowships.

The Isocore Technologies team is currently enrolled in the Vector DOD accelerator program and has set its sights on pursuing additional venture opportunities like ASU Innovation Open.

Piper says the H4D course will help students experience a new type of learning and thinking.

“This course offers a really unique hands-on learning experience for entrepreneurship, but also for general problem-solving,” Piper says. “It is not you and your team fumbling in the dark — the active guidance of our teachers was amazing and so useful.”

Interested in taking the Hacking for Defense course in Fall 2021? Enroll in one of the following courses by Wednesday, August 25, 2021:

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering students can sign up for FSE 494 class #89393 or FSE 598 class #89392.

Students in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts can enroll in IVD 494 class #89545 or IVD 598 class #89546.

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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