Home Venture Capital House lawmaker hopes to resuscitate DoD’s venture fellowship program

House lawmaker hopes to resuscitate DoD’s venture fellowship program

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Congress, Pentagon

AFWERX’s booth at the AFA Warfare Symposium

AFWERX’s booth at the AFA Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, Feb. 13, 2024. AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, brings cutting edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Madero)

WASHINGTON — A program that embeds Defense Department employees at tech startups and venture capital firms may not be wholly dead just yet.

At the Hill and Valley Forum happening today on Capitol Hill, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., announced plans to push for the creation of a venture fellowship program inside the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Capital through this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

The proposed office would fill the gap left by the recent dissolution of the Defense Ventures Program run by the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation arm and Shift, a firm that links DoD civilians and military personnel with job opportunities in the private sector.

AFWERX spokesman Rob Bardua told Defense One in March that the Air Force was forced to terminate the program due to funding constraints, which prevented the service from awarding a contract option that would keep the effort going through January 2025.

In a March post on LinkedIn, Shift CEO Mike Slagh said that despite efforts to find other investors after AFWERX funding dried up, Shift “ran out of time and came up short,” forcing the company to have to shut down and liquidate its assets.

In remarks today, Stefanik criticized the Air Force’s decision as “shortsided and misguided,” and said a new fellowship program was necessary to deepen ties between the Pentagon and the private sector.

“Over time, this program will lower the barriers to entry for venture-backed, non-traditional defense tech startups by eliciting cultural change throughout the acquisition community,” she said. “The next generation of DoD acquisition professionals must be armed to optimally leverage traditional and non traditional defense vendors to deliver the best possible capabilities directly to the warfighter.”

While the proposed fellowship program stands a good chance of being approved, it is by no means certain and could take months to be enshrined in law. Stefanik, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who chairs the House Republican Caucus, could offer language to create the new office in HASC’s version of the FY25 NDAA, but the measure will have to withstand the negotiations process between it and its Senate counterpart in order to make the final bill.

Stefanik did not provide details on how the new fellowship program would be structured. AFWERX’s effort allowed DoD employees to spend eight weeks immersed at venture capital, technology startups and incubators including firms Anduril and Andreessen Horowitz, where participants could build connections within the private sector and learn how those companies operate.

AFWERX and Shift did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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