Why Teach as I Live It? A Startup Founder's Perspective on Hacking 4 Security

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Hacking 4 Security

How can ONE logistical solution be both digital AND paper-based at the same time?

I smiled.

This question was raised by one of the student teams I lectured in Hacking for Security (H4S) this past academic year at the Institute of Security Science & Technology (ISST), Imperial College London. Their original Problem Statement: Optimise supply location and track supply depletion to ensure dependent units have access to necessary supplies in urban environments. After a day at an Army base to discover the nature of their chosen problem, the team had conducted several interviews which taught them the first lesson of real-world entrepreneurship: People don’t always know what they need.

More clearly, people can’t always see the problems within their organisations after being engrossed in their own environment for too long. Like trying to identify the scent of your own home when it’s so easy to recognise that of others. You’ve simply gone native.

That question was only asked midway through the 10-week course. Initially, the student teams select one in a list of national security or defence Problem Statements provided by a government problem sponsor in the Ministry of Defence. This problem becomes their focus for the course. Like most of us, they’re prone to start solving the problem themselves right away using their creativity and learnt knowledge, and they initially resisted the suggestion of questioning the Problem Statement before coming up with a solution. I say this, having been a student and an academic who used to approach every problem the same way. I believed the solution would teach me the answers to the questions of what, where, how, when and finally why. This course however challenges that frame of mind, where stated problems aren’t there to initially solve, they are there to question - this time, starting with “Why?”

Why do we challenge this frame of mind? I am glad you asked!

We challenge the academic “solution first” problem-solving framework as it reduces your chances of success in entrepreneurship. There is no point trying to solve a problem if it’s not the ACTUAL problem that needs solving, especially not in the defence and security industry.  This has been a very acute lesson for my co-founders and I during these 3+ years of our startup, Synbiosys. To define this industry in my experience: 

It is the conjoining of the needs of both commercial and government entities. With that, it brings the inefficiencies and challenges of both into something quite spectacular and discombobulating for the uninitiated.

To be successful, Synbiosys as a team needed to evolve past the contradictions and confusion to understand “Why”: Why is this a problem? Why has it existed for so long? Why hasn’t anyone solved it yet?, etc. The best way we achieved this was by increasing our exposure to the variety of customer archetypes, and embracing the exceedingly reputable lean methodologies, that form the basis of teaching platforms such as H4S.

Sharing my stories and experiences is one thing, but the course objective is to engross the students into the real-world environment, an educational experience that was rare ten years ago.

I know, I looked.

In my late teens I found my early startup experience through my immediate network. I was very fortunate to have access to work opportunities and active mentorship from an experienced entrepreneur with a robust portfolio of startup ventures. But, having a single source of knowledge did not provide the same comprehensive learning experience as the material and my teaching team were able to deliver on H4S. Despite this early age exposure, knowing what I know today, I can say I knew nothing.

Fast forward from my teens to 3 years ago: At the beginning of Synbiosys, three science and engineering PhDs, myself included, co-founded a company based on a revolutionary armour technology that is changing how all armour systems are designed, built and integrated.

 This start-up and its mission felt brilliant, until it didn’t.

What we thought was the perfect first problem to solve with our armour wasn’t really a problem at all. Despite reading the literature, both academic and commercial, our scientific arrogance blinded us and caused us a major psychological hit which could have been avoided.

The lesson was learnt - even when everything makes sense scientifically, it doesn’t mean it will make sense commercially. We developed a material that out-performed existing materials in several equal use cases. The market for these materials has a defined standard which influences manufacturing. Manufacturers are disinterested in taking on new materials, so long as there exists material which meets the market standard. This kept us from manufacturing our product in bulk to redefine the standard. A classic chicken and egg conundrum that could have been avoided - if we asked the right questions.

Round two and many rounds after, applying tried-and-tested lean methodologies to understand the relevant problems within the defence and security industry has allowed us to find much more success. This is what we teach in H4S.

Today: I teach this course knowing the benefits I would have had if I learned this earlier on; validate the problem first, think about the solution second. I now know the setbacks I could have avoided and ultimately the expedited successes that could have been achieved. Realistically, however, the only way to learn and grow from it is to experience it.

Being a part of this course has been rewarding for me, both as an educator and in becoming a part of the “H4X” network with my students. One of the most memorable opportunities I had as an H4S educator was attending the Lean Educators Summit in Palo Alto, California, led by Steve Blank, creator of the Lean Startup movement and of the Lean LaunchPad curriculum on which H4S is based. I spoke to and learnt from those who have tried and tested these methodologies for years before I could even spell “entrepreneurship.”

Where every networking opportunity is one to learn from, what stood out to me was the attitude of the teachers who have taught iterations of H4S and its sister course in the UK, Hacking for MoD, before me. An attitude that could simply be described in two words: They care.

They want us, and yes I include myself in the student bucket at this time, to succeed. They are pushing this generation, much like parents would, to experience the lessons they learned as early on as possible and fail fast to get back up faster.  They care.

They recognise the need to nurture the next generation of innovative and curious minds, they care about teaching real-world skills in order to realise their creative mindset, and they care about introducing them into the defence and security sector to make for a safer future. You know - real world stuff.

That is why this course exists. To unlock the potential of intellectual and driven students by engaging them in real-world problems and real-world people, with the help of expert mentorship. My measure of success, unlike the traditional university grading standards, is “Personal Growth”. I have seen my students’ biggest growth spurts in emotional maturity and resilience to overcome internal team challenges and external nightmares. Failure will be seen as a form of success, and the rewards that follow transcend an “A+”. Because, the end of the course does not end the student’s journey - especially those with their own validated, trial and tested solution that can take off into full- blown procurement. These lessons will allow for the greatest chance of survival, without which, you are me - three years ago, still learning.

I will proudly continue to teach H4S at the ISST. It takes a village to teach this course, and I was fortunate to have an excellent teaching assistant, Sinead O’Brien .To be successful,  both of us had to play various parts to get the teams going. Thankfully, we are expanding the teaching roster to include my Synbiosys co-founder Dr Gareth Tear as an Educator. We are excited to continue seeing where our student’s journey mimics ours, and where it varies. Mostly importantly, much like the team I met at the Lean Summit, we want to see our students succeed and look forward to the day we can work together side by side to innovate in defence and security.

Because if you, like I, a) have kept an eye on non-Covid related news, b) see the huge push for innovation in UK defence and security, and c) are witnessing the breakdown of global collective relationships with joint goals; we would agree that courses like H4S couldn’t be more important right now.

As for the question: “How can one logistical solution be both digital and paper-based at the same time?”

If this piece hasn’t led you to believe this already, the stated problem was not THE problem. Once the right questions were asked, the Problem Statement was revised the following week: The current logistical system does not work in an urban environment due to a lack of knowledge regarding efficiency of supply movement via shipping containers. This led to a solution that the end user actually wanted to implement - a smart, discreet shipping container.


Dr. Jose Videria is the H4S Course Leader at the Institute of Security Science & Technology (ISST), Imperial College London. View the original article on the Commission website.

H4S  is an elective course in the MSc Security & Resilience program at the ISST (Program link)