Silicon Valley was once one of the most productive regions in the country for the defense industry, churning out chips and technologies that helped the United States overtake the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since then, the region has been known far less for silicon and defense than for the consumer internet products of Google, Facebook and Netflix.
A small number of startups though are attempting to revitalize that important government-industry nexus as the rise of China pushes more defense planners in Washington to double down on America’s technical edge. Vannevar Labs is one of this new crop, and it has hit some new milestones in its quest to displace traditional defense contractors with Silicon Valley entrepreneurial acumen.
I last chatted with the company just as it was debuting in late 2019, having raised a $4.5 million seed. The company has been quiet and heads down the past two years as it developed a product and traction within the defense establishment. Now it’s ready to reveal a bit more of what all that work has culminated in.
Vannevar Labs comes out of stealth to bring best-in-class AI tech to national security agencies
First, the company officially launched its Vannevar Decrypt product in January of this year. It’s focused on foreign language natural language processing, organizing overseas data and resources that are collected by the intelligence community and then immediately translating and interpreting those documents for foreign policy decision-makers. CEO and co-founder Brett Granberg said that the product “went from one deployment to a dozen adoptions.”
Second, the company raised a $12 million Series A investment in May from Costanoa Ventures and Point72 with General Catalyst participating. Costanoa and GC co-led the startup’s seed round.
Finally, the company has been on a hiring spree. The team has grown into a crew of 20 employees, and the firm last week brought on Scott Sanders to lead business development. Sanders was one of the earliest employees at Anduril, and had spent several years at the company. Vannevar also added John Doyle, a long-time Palantir employee who was head of its national security business, onto its board according to Granberg. Today, the team is equally split between national security folks and technologists, and he says that the team is set to double this year.
With a few years of hindsight, Granberg says that he has refined what he considers the best model for defense tech startups to break into the hardscrabble market at the Pentagon and across Northern Virginia.
First, there needs to be incredible focus on getting access to actual end users and learning their work. The functions that defense and intelligence personnel perform are completely different from operations in the commercial economy, and trying to translate what works at a large corporation into defense is a fool’s errand. “You need to have both the DNA of understanding new technology and the DNA of deeply understanding a lot of different use cases within DoD,” Granberg said, referencing the Department of Defense.
That’s directly informed how Decrypt has developed over time. “We started focusing on the counter-terrorism space, and as the government moved away from counter-terrorism, we started moving to the foreign actors that were important,” he said. “Once we have our first couple of deployments, we are able to iterate very, very quickly.”
He also strongly eschews a popular view in defense procurement circles that there are “dual-use” technologies that can be used equally well in commercial and defense applications. “Some of the most important mission problems where the government spends the most money and has the most interest,” he explained, are also contexts where commercial off-the-shelf products (dubbed COTS in the industry parlance) are least useful. He says startups targeting defense simply cannot split their bandwidth by also trying to learn commercial use cases.
In fact, he went so far to predict that “you are going to see a lot of companies that have raised a lot of money that will fizzle out in the coming years” because they just can’t nail the dual-use model well.
Second, he argues that defense tech startups need to move beyond the model that each company should work on one platform, and instead move to an organizational model where a company offers multiple products to reach scale. Each product has the potential to reach “a couple of hundred million in revenue” according to Granberg, but it is hard to expand a company’s size if it doesn’t parallelize product development.
To that end, Granberg said that he pushes Vannevar Labs to always be exploring new product lines for growth. “Decrypt is our first product [but]10% of our energy is in new product efforts,” he said. “I can imagine when we are three to four years down the line… it might be 9-10 products.” He said that the one platform approach might have worked for Palantir, which ironically, is the major winner in the defense tech space the last few years. But newer companies like Anduril and Shield AI have been designed around product line expansion.
Finally, noting those other companies, Granberg believes there is something of a collective benefit as each startup makes headway in the defense sector. “There is this theory in our space that we don’t view ourselves as competitors — if one of us does well, we all do well,” he said. Given the varied mission requirements of different agencies and the absolute massive scale of budgets in this field, startups actually have a lot of independent terrain to explore, even if they come up against the big legacy defense contractors on a regular basis.
As for Vannevar Labs, its next goal is to turn its Decrypt product into a program of record, which would guarantee it a certain level of sales and revenue for potentially years into the future. That’s a huge bar to leap, but would be a turning point in the company’s long-term trajectory.
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