New ‘Hacking for Defense’ Class Looks to Solve Mission-Critical Operational Issues


The Hacking for Defense class was started by Steve Blank at Stanford University and has spread to more than 30 universities. Now, the class is coming to the University of Chicago to meet student demand for experiential, applied innovation courses.

Leading the class with M. Todd Henderson, Michael J. Marks professor of law, Will Gossin, a lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation at UChicago, said they wanted to give students the opportunity to experience the unique challenges that this course’s partnerships offer.

“Students come to our schools and degree programs for the rigorous inquiry and research training that we offer,” said Gossin, “and we believe that such good analysis must be catalyzed into new execution.”

Lucas Peralta, associate director for college and cross-campus programs at the University’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is the teaching assistant for the class, which is team-based and highly experiential.

The course aims to train students in how to apply the “innovation toolkit” – lean startup, human-centered design, prototyping – to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Communities. Each team will be partnered with an agency lead who will support the student’s research and development. The goal also is that this will lead to new partnerships between government agencies and UChicago students.

“Outside of the skill development, we believe large organizations like those in the DoD deserve attention from our students,” explained Gossin, who said there are few institutions where the impact of student work can be greater – both during the upcoming fall quarter and beyond.

“If we can pique students to look at large institutions with curiosity rather than dismay, we’ll be making progress to ensuring that these institutions realize their missions,” he added.

The midwest, and specifically the University, has connections to critical institutions, including Argonne and Fermilab, which the school manages for the US Department of Energy (DOE). These labs were recently selected by the DOE as new National Quantum Information Science Research Centers.

Additionally, the DOD in 2019 awarded $10 million in funding to the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, now called MxD (Manufacturing x Digital).  The award is part of a multi-year, follow-on agreement with a ceiling of $60 million of government funding.

“There’s a lot going on here that is elevating the foundation for the future of diverse industries and institutions,” said Gossin.

Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

The Hacking for Defense class is available at the University through the Law School, Harris School of Public Policy, and Committee on International Relations – as addressing the challenges will require cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“The challenges sponsors are bringing are mission-critical operational issues… And the reason they’re not solved is because they’re gnarly. These challenges require non-linear, creative thinking in addition to rigor,” said Gossin.

The challenges are similar to those addressed in another class Gossin teachers – Leading with Innovation – which worked with local government agencies in Chicago.

“There’s no single school with the skills to tackle them sufficiently,” he added, noting that they want students from “the seemingly obvious disciplines” – and also those who wouldn’t normally think they’d be a fit, but who are intrigued by the complexity of the challenges.

Gossin said he and Henderson are astounded by these challenges, many of which, “if cracked,” will have implications for the future of government, the social sector, and the global economy.

For instance, one challenge focuses on biomanufacturing: the process of designing bespoke microbes that can produce all sorts of materials at scale. Specifically, the sponsor is hoping a student team can help figure out how to build a market and supply chain for biomanufacturing in the US.

“The research progress has been swift and the implications could mean a complete disruption of logistics across industries,” explained Gossin. “The opportunity to shape the future of a huge, huge industry – and transform economic development – is right there.”

There also are several technology challenges, ranging from overcoming the lack of communication spectrum to creating a regulatory system for keeping space-based objects from colliding with each other.

“We’ve chosen others that represent production and supply chain challenges that touch on automation, fashion, digital manufacturing,” he said. “Again, the types of challenges that require interdisciplinary collaboration and the innovation toolkit that students will learn with us.”

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