William Leonard

Hey ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. Joining us this week is Patrick Reynolds, who’s the Georgia University Program Director for the National Security Innovation Network, or some call it NSIN. Patrick has a unique and varied background, which helps him scout, support and connect early stage tech and talent with the DoD. We’ll talk about what data points Patrick assesses when scouting companies will also dive into the inner workings of the relationships that companies in talent form with the DoD through NSIN and also some of the misconceptions of working with the DoD. Hope you enjoy today’s episode and let’s dive right in. Before we jump into today’s episode let’s talk a bit more about some of the happenings for the valor team this month. We’re actively accepting entries for Valor’s Art of Inclusion annual $5,000 artists commission. Please share this with the rising Georgia artists who you appreciate. The deadline to apply is September 30. And if you’ll be in New York City later this month, Valor General Partner Lisa Calhoun will be on the main stage at Super Return in New York City on September 13th. Lisa will also be at the Georgia Association of Pension Plan Trustees conference in Athens, Georgia taking place on September 19th through the 21st and if you’ll be at either event, feel free to reach out and connect with Lisa face to face. And finally, the last stop of the Atlanta Unlocked Tour is taking place at Atlanta Tech Park on Thursday, September 22nd. I will be in attendance so if you plan on going please reach out and I’d love to connect face to face. Now let’s dive into today’s conversation. Patrick, it’s a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Patrick Reynolds

Thanks for having me on.

William Leonard

Let’s talk more about you, NSIN, and your role with Georgia Tech, but I think the first practical place to start is to tell us what NSIN is and about your role as well.

Patrick Reynolds

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but as you eluded, NSIN is the National Security Innovation Network, like all things, DoD, we love our acronyms. But at the heart of NSIN, we’re a Department of Defense Program Office, if it is important to your audience, we sit under the Office of the undersecretary for research and engineering. At the heart of it, our mission is building a network of innovators to create new solutions to national security problems. Just kind of a mouthful, but I guess what it boils down to is, that there are certain groups that have traditionally done great work solving DoD problems, and then there’s a whole lot of other people who have, for various reasons, never thought to work in this space and never been involved in any projects. That’s kind of what we do. I mean, it’s in the name of our organization, with a network that is kind of bringing these two sides of the coin together. On one hand, you have the Department of Defense and the military, and various problems and projects that they want to have solved. On the other hand, you have these regions that we sit in, in my case in the Atlanta ecosystem, and kind of plugging in both the startup ecosystem, the university ecosystem, and just people that can deliver the solutions that may be traditionally have not had access to working with the DoD.

William Leonard

Got it? You’re serving as this liaison connecting military and DoD problems to problem solvers and be in the world of academia and the private sector local to Atlanta and the state of Georgia, or is it just Atlanta?

Patrick Reynolds

Yes. In my case, I guess I didn’t give you a good sense of our overall structure. I am the point person for the state of Georgia, I do sit here in Atlanta if you can see some of the buildings behind me in Atlanta right here, but I’m the point person for the whole state of Georgia. I’ve been in the seat here with NSIN for just shy of two years. There’s just so much that’s going on in the Greater Atlanta area that that’s kind of been a lot of the focus on the startup and academia side. But certainly, there are lots of great things happening out in Augusta and Athens, and other parts of the state. We’re happy to connect there. As you mentioned, this title University Program Director, I have colleagues all across the country that are in similar positions in cities and regions of interest. For example, if a company was really looking to engage with some naval base like out in San Diego or on the West Coast, chances are pretty good that we have somebody within our organization that works closely there.

William Leonard

You’re covering the entire state of Georgia but you’ve got colleagues and similar roles across the nation creating this cohesive network that you all can leverage. That’s awesome. What’s your background, Patrick? How did you get into this role with NSIN and work with the DoD in the early-stage tech ecosystem here in Atlanta?

Patrick Reynolds

Yes, it’s kind of funny. I have a little bit of a different background than a lot of my colleagues. I wouldn’t say there’s any common background to the whole organization but many of my colleagues probably, not surprisingly, have either a service background or some sort of government agency, working somewhere in government background. My background is actually a good bit different. I actually started my career as a cancer biologist at UNC Chapel Hill. When I decided to leave bench work myself, I spent the next dozen or so years commercializing technologies in that space. I guess technology transfer would be kind of the common nomenclature for that, working at a couple of different offices, and we were building things in the lab or wherever we are, how do we actually take these things to the next level? How does intellectual property fit into that? How does getting a qualified CEO to fundraise fit into that? Also had the occasion during some of that time to get involved with the very early stage company out in eastern Tennessee, a music technology company, and got to kind of run business development for them. It’s nice because now when I work with companies that are startups across various sectors, it’s one thing to kind of hear the usual lines of “do this, do that”. But I’ve been through all that fun of pitching to investors, thinking you understand your customers, and sometimes you don’t, and really having to dive deep on the customer discovery side. I guess, to complete the background, about two years ago, I was working over at Emory University and their technology transfer office, kind of focused both on technology scouting, as well as working with startups that were coming out of the university to help them get early stage capital. This opportunity came in front of me, and functionally, well, sounds a lot different on paper, a lot of what my day-to-day now is kind of finding people, finding technology, finding startups, kind of scouting and finding funding to build those solutions just in kind of some different technology verticals.

William Leonard

It sounds like you’ve historically been in people-facing roles, whether it’s adjacent to tech or not, but you have these experiences in tech, scouting, and finding startups working with early companies out of Emory. Sounds like you almost have a truly unique but perfect background for this role here. I’m curious, how does your background transition or translate to your day-to-day over at NSIN? What does a typical day for Patrick and the team look like?

Patrick Reynolds

The good news is for me, I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a typical day, that keeps it exciting. But I guess the sort of daily basis, the types of things that were involved with, I alluded a little bit to this earlier, but it’s kind of working between these two or three different worlds. On one hand, I spent a lot of time meeting with, throughout the state of Georgia, various duty groups or military bases, whether it’s down at Fort Benning or at Fort Gordon, or up at Dobbins up near Marietta, kind of engaging with key leadership there to figure out, “What are the problems that you’re facing that you don’t have good solutions to today?” I come in, and whether it’s integrating with the university, like Georgia Tech, or working with startup companies in the Greater Atlanta area to find maybe the problem that’s expressed by this leadership in the military, maybe they just need people to work on it, they need some smart, talented people to work on it. Maybe we can find those or maybe the solution to that already exists, but it’s only available or marketed to the private sector and they’re just not aware of it, with very little to no tweaking, it could be a great match to solve their problems.

William Leonard

Well, let’s dive in here. You’re at the frontlines of this relationship between tech companies here in Atlanta and broader the state of Georgia, and the DoD, right?  As you were looking at companies and technologies that are solving the core problems that the DoD may have, what are some of the ways that you’re assessing talent in discovering new technologies? Are there any intangible or tangible things that you’re specifically looking for?

Patrick Reynolds

There’s quite a broad range. If you look, anybody can Google these, there’s Heidi Shyu, put out 14 modernization priorities across the Department of Defense. Without boring you by reading out a long list of it, actually, a lot of the focus areas for the Department of Defense overlap significantly with what we see in the private sector, things like artificial intelligence, machine learning technologies, cybersecurity, biotechnology, energy systems, some get a little bit more focused on the DoD, like space-related technologies. But by and large, a lot of it is just playing this at a large-scale matchmaker and it can go either way, where I can be interacting with companies and working with companies in the area, and just getting a high-level overview of what they do. Sometimes, they’re not even aware that their technology has huge applications to solve military problems, or sometimes we’re working on the flip side where the DoD says, “We really have this problem.” And I think, “I’ve never thought that that’s the Department Of Defense problem.” We can bring them in and put the pieces together. It’s fairly broad. I don’t know if that answered your question, Will.

William Leonard

That does. I’m curious you mentioned that some of these companies you’re interacting with just aren’t aware that their software/hardware, whatever it may be, could be a problem solver for the DoD. I’m curious, how often does that happen where you see technology and enlighten the the founder and the team about a potential new application within the DoD potentially?

Patrick Reynolds

It happens pretty regularly actually. I mean, it’s kind of the sweet spot for us as an organization, where we would just call dual-use ventures or dual-use technologies. I think a lot of people assume you know, you’re a Department of Defense Organization, that means you’re focused on whatever comes to their mind tanks or something very military and application. Don’t think that a lot of the problems that we’re working on solving are broad-ranging, like I said some of those focus areas like AI and cybersecurity. A lot of people just didn’t necessarily have a background of working with the Department of Defense, or they didn’t have some sort of family association, where they’ve had some background knowledge of or family member who’s worked either in uniform or civil service with the DoD. Oftentimes, it’s just an educational opportunity if the company is interested in engaging.

William Leonard

That’s fascinating. I know you’re meeting with companies, and connecting them, but I know NSIN also has a roadshow. Can you tell us more about the roadshow that you all have? How often does it happen? What is the core purpose of this roadshow?

Patrick Reynolds

Sure. A t the time we’re recording this, it’ll be in advance of the roadshow. I think this episode will probably air a little bit afterward but that’s fine. The purpose is kind of twofold, to keep Atlanta on the map and kind of on the radar of DoD funding organizations that may not have traditionally done a lot of deal flow in the Greater Atlanta area. And then on the flip side, to introduce companies coming out of the state of Georgia to ways to engage with major funders within the DoD. So in this space, one of our organizations that kind of sits in a similar space, maybe a little bit later stages called DIU or the Defense Innovation Unit. Probably a good way to think of it as well, while we are oftentimes working a little bit earlier maybe with people coming out of university or very early-stage startups, they’re really looking to speed up that acquisition cycle for companies that already have a little bit of traction. DIU is based on the west coast but they’ve been interested in exploring key cities across the country, what’s happening here, and how can we learn more about the ecosystem. That’s what this roadshow event is for. It’ll be a chance for both NSIN and DIU to kind of get a sense of a bigger-picture version of what we’re discussing today. Here are the areas of interest and a chance for companies that are interested or entrepreneurs looking to expand into that space to learn how to.

William Leonard

You’re bringing much-needed exposure to a lot of companies that could work with the DoD and DIU as well. Do these road shows happen in the cities where your colleagues and the other University Program Directors are? Or is there a certain few select cities where the road shows do happen?

Patrick Reynolds

There’s no set format and there actually hasn’t been a ton of them to date to my knowledge. But I believe all the other ones probably, I think it’s safe to say any other place where there’s been a roadshow, there’s probably a strong presence from NSIN or DIU in that area. But you’re right, it does tend to be cities where there’s just, I mean, we have a heck of a lot going on here in Atlanta and there’s a good chance to show it off and be able to kind of have a meeting of the minds between the funding organizations and the people looking to build those solutions. That’s what I think this roadshow is all about.

William Leonard

I love that. You’ve been with NSIN for I think you said about two years now. You’ve seen the program blossom a bit. I’m curious as to what are some of the ways that you’ve seen NSIN develop and continue to help startups connect with the DoD and then as you think about 2022, we’re just over halfway through the year now and beyond, what’s on the horizon that’s exciting, for instance, in terms of maybe programming, partnerships, anything fun on that front?

Patrick Reynolds

Good question. I guess it would be helpful to give a high-level overview to kind of the various areas where NSIN works and I’m not going to bore you to tears by going down a laundry list of having like, here are all the programs that we have. But broadly, we run a lot of programs and they kind of fall into basically three portfolios. The first one, the national service portfolio, think of that as jobs and internships. We’re actually just finishing up over the summer our X Force Fellowship which is where students either at the undergraduate or graduate or recent alumni level across the country get paired up full time over the summer. It’s nice because this year, we’ve actually had the opportunity for students that are interested in and to be able to locate physically where these key DoD mission partners for us are. To give an example, we have some down at Fort Benning this summer, we have several other Georgia Tech students at various other places across the country. It’s just a great chance to give them that real-world exposure, it’s one thing to learn and universities do a great job of teaching them the fundamentals and the tricks of the trade, but then getting them out there in person and dealing with the people who have these problems and working on customer discovery is huge. If somebody’s looking to get into civil service employment somewhere in the DoD, that all fits in this national service area. The second kind of portfolio, we call collaboration portfolio, but just think of it as collision events where you get people on the DoD in a room and you get people in this academia or startup group in a room to kind of get heads together in the same space. This is where we host our hackathons that we’ve run in various technology verticals and that’s where we host our course called Hacking for Defense, which is now at several dozen universities across the country. The easy way to think of that, especially for computer scientists, engineers, and maybe some policy students, it doesn’t have to be in one particular area or another. Again, getting into that key customer discovery and figuring out, alright, we’re really good at building things, let’s make sure we’re not building things that people don’t actually need or that they won’t buy at the end of the day. That’s kind of another thing that kind of sits in that category. And then maybe more relevant to the subject of this podcast, the third portfolio, our acceleration portfolio, and that’s really all focused on startup companies. As I mentioned before, it’s not uncommon for us to engage with a great company, they might have great leadership, have a great idea for a game plan for how they’re going to approach the private sector, and then maybe through a conversation, they realize there could be a huge market in the military? How do I access that? You don’t just hop on Google and say military, how do I sell to, there are a lot of steps to that. That’s where some of the programming we have acceleration either for already existing companies to give them a kind of educational walkthrough or for entrepreneurs that are looking for technologies to build a company around. We have two other programs that are taking IP assets, either out of federal labs or out of universities, all with the goal of solving key Department of Defense problems. They walk through that, they build a business case, and then hopefully at the end of it, if it looks promising, maybe they move forward, maybe they license the assets or kind of really come up with a sort of next steps for building that. That’s kind of the high-level overview of a lot of the areas were involved in. Getting to your point about what am I excited about in the coming years, I think broadly, really, we’re just kind of at the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what we’re doing in the Atlanta area and across the state of Georgia. There are tons of great things happening at Georgia Tech and GTRI. That’s great but we also have so much more happening here, we have Emory University, we have Georgia State, we have Morehouse, I don’t want to just keep listening because all inevitably leave somebody that’s a great university off, but just broadly to say, there are lots of projects that we have and a lot of these kinds of build on earlier ones. At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is just running through the motions and saying, let’s run this through a course we want to deliver solutions. It’s always about planning. How do we get the next steps done? How do we get funding for this next stage? Who are the people we need to introduce to him?

William Leonard

It sounds like NSIN has this truly comprehensive network of programs and cohorts that are helping these companies connect with the DoD and you talked about the acceleration program, I believe earlier, and that’s sort of the educational piece for the startups that are wanting to sell to DoD clientele. You and I, Patrick, I’ve had several conversations previously where we’ve talked about this and how there are some misconceptions around working with and selling to the DoD. I think you are the perfect person here to debunk what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to working with this type of clientele. Tell us the truth about working with this type of customer.

Patrick Reynolds

There are probably a good amount of false myths or misconceptions and some of it’s probably not entirely untrue. But as we dive into it, we’ve already kind of alluded to, I think a lot of times people think DoD and they think military, they think ammunitions, they think planes, they think tanks. Sometimes they don’t realize that some things that might seem more mundane are very relevant to solving problems for the DoD, whether it’s processing inputs, applying filters and outputs, these types you would think of in lots of different markets, those are applicable across the DoD. But I think one of the big problems that are one of the big things that people think about a challenge of working in this space is the pace is too slow, it’s going to slow me down. I’m going to get caught up. Everybody’s heard the stories about SBIR factories, Small Business Innovation Research Grant, where a company kind of goes after this pot of funding, and then that dries up and they start to look around and say, “How else can we pivot or change our company?” And they keep going through this pivot cycle.

William Leonard

So many stories about that.

Patrick Reynolds

SBIR can be a great resource but also it’s only one of the numerous other funding vehicles that are available for startup companies or early-stage companies in this space.

William Leonard

Do you think other vehicles that are available, I know you mentioned that SBIR is probably the most popular vehicle but also alternatives that may exist.

Patrick Reynolds

I’m actually not the world’s expert on this but if anybody wanted to follow up after the podcast, we actually have a whole separate wing of NSIN that’s focused, so all these kinds of experts coming from the DoD acquisitions world. But for example, there are these other things called the Other Transaction Authorities or OTAs. Not exactly a super clever or innovative name, but it’s another type of funding vehicle that I think a lot of people are unaware of outside of SBIR from the time that the funding is made available until the time it can be distributed, can be much, much faster than people usually think about for the SBIR cycle throughout the year. Also, the funding limits to them can be much, much, much higher. And there are, like I say, numerous other vehicles beyond this. I think SBIR certainly is the most commonly thought of one. Even when we look in that space, there are various groups within the DoD, like the Air Force, Air Force Research Lab, and what’s called an open topic SBIR. Rather than that traditional problem we mentioned, how do we pigeonhole what we’re doing into this call that we see for some proposal here? What you actually do is, “All right, I think what we have built solves a problem that you all have.” If you think that’s true, then you can apply for this open topic SBIR, and it’s rapidly become one of the most, if not the most popular for these solicitations. I think just various things like that are ways that we can help plug companies to make sure that you can get this money and you can get it faster, and you might not necessarily have to change what your company is doing because that’s certainly a complaint traditionally on the private capital investment side is, that’s great if you get that money, but we don’t want you to slow us down as we move forward where the reality can oftentimes be that you can open access to huge markets, if you can just kind of navigate the timelines.

William Leonard

That’s helpful. As we kind of know, the DoD does have distinct advantages and there are some misconceptions about the disadvantages maybe. I think that gives us a lot of insight into working with the DoD and the government. Lastly, as we’re wrapping up the conversation here, Patrick, I know, you have some passions outside of working with NSIN that are focused on the music tech scene here in Atlanta. Tell us more about that and what drives your passion for music.

Patrick Reynolds

As far back as I can remember back when I was rocking the clarinet in grade school, I’ve always been a musician. Over the years, it’s just been an important part of my life and as I mentioned years ago, I had the chance to get involved very early on with a music technology company in the music performance live streaming space. I became very intrigued and interested so as I’ve been here, a lot of my role interacts with startup companies across lots of technology verticals here in Atlanta. Oftentimes, when you’re working with a particular company, you can say, “Alright, you are focused on FinTech, here’s a group you should go connect to. You’re focused on the DoD, here’s a group you should go connect to.” I kind of initially sought out what is a resource for those companies in the Atlanta area, so they don’t have to go drive a good ways away or fly good ways away to things like there are great things for this, like in Nashville, or in LA. After having a heck of a lot of conversations realized, well, maybe I just need to start this up myself. That was the origin just several months ago of Make More Music ATL, which is exactly focused on bringing together entrepreneurs and startups, what I would kind of jokingly call mom or dad banders. People who are interested and have a passion in this space, but have made their living in their careers, maybe in finance, or running some other type of company or in the virtual reality space. They have real domain expertise and maybe patent attorneys as well, and are interested in sort of serving as mentors. And then the other leg of the stool is investors that are looking to kind of broaden the areas that they’re interested in investing. It’s really bringing that kind of critical mass together, getting all these people in the same room to just build exciting technologies that are either music technology directly, or that have applications for something in the music business. I think by the time this episode airs, if anybody’s interested, I don’t have a website for it yet but you have my contact info, if anybody reaches out, I can certainly point them to me or on LinkedIn, if you look at Make More Music ATL, you can access it that way.

William Leonard

That’s a great plug there. If we have an audience member who’s listening now and says, “Hey, I think my startup may be perfect for NSIN and working with the DoD.” How can they best get in touch with you, Patrick, to keep the conversation going?

Patrick Reynolds

Certainly, I would love to have conversations with anybody who has questions in that space. The easiest way is probably if you go to our website and https://www.nsin.mil/. It’ll have kind of a whole group of people who are the whole staff list of anybody who’s involved here and just find me on there. I’m the like I said, the University Program Director for Georgia, and reach out. I’m more than happy to have a discussion. If you’re in the area and happy to meet up for a coffee, I’d love to chat.

William Leonard

Awesome, Patrick. This was truly an enlightening, insightful, and informative conversation. As you know, we delve into the various ways that NSIN brings exposure to startups through the roadshows that happened across the country. We talked about what catches your eye when you’re looking to connect startups to NSIN in DoD programming. And then also, you really gave us the fact versus fiction when working with the DoD, what’s true, what’s not, what you can expect, and I think that that really helps our audience understand what a working relationship with the DoD and NSIN could be like for their startup. I appreciate your time today, Patrick, and this was a fun episode, man, and looking forward to catching you around town.

Patrick Reynolds

Absolutely. Let’s do it.

William Leonard

Cheers, take care.

Lisa Calhoun

We’re thrilled to have you as an Atlanta Startup Podcast listener to help you get the most out of the experience. Let me invite you to three insider opportunities from our host Valor Ventures. First, want to be a guest on this amazing show. Reach out to our booking team at atlantastartuppodcast.com. Click on booking, It’s a no-brainer from there. Are you raising a seed round? Valor definitely wants to hear from you. Share your startup story at valor.vc/pitch. Are you a woman or minority-led startup valor sister program? The Startup Runway Foundation gives away grants to promising startups led by underrepresented founders. The mission of the Startup Runway Foundation is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investors. Startup runway finalists have raised over $40 million. See if you qualify for one of these amazing grants at startuprunway.org. You can also sign up for our next showcase for free there. Let me let you go today with a shout-out to Startup Runway presenting sponsor Cox Enterprises and to our founding partners, American Family Institute, Truist, Georgia Power, Avanta Ventures, and Innovators Legal. These great organizations make Startup Runway possible. Thanks for listening today and see you back next week.