Lt. Cmdr. Ben "Prof" Kohlmann is the speechwriter to Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell founding member and leader of the (CRIC) where he helped facilitate the first few projects and spearheaded the effort to put 3D printers on warships for the first time.
Kohlmann also founded and chairs the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, an ecosystem like for national security professionals.
Kohlmann responded to questions in a series of emails in January.
Q: Can you provide a brief history of the CRIC and how you became a founding member?
A: CRIC was founded in 2012 after a CNO Executive Panel made recommendations to the CNO about fostering and promoting innovation within the Navy. Rear Adm. Terry Kraft, then Commander of Navy Warfare Development Command, had been exploring ways for his command to empower junior leaders within the service, and pitched the idea to the CNO on creating a band of Navy mavericks to propose and champion new ideas.
Earlier that year, I had formed a military/civilian organization called Disruptive Thinkers in San Diego to obtain best practices from the civilian entrepreneurial community and apply them to military institutions. Rear Adm. Kraft became aware of my efforts through a series of articles I penned, and asked me to join as one of the founding members. From there, Lt. Jason Chuma (the other founding member) and I recruited 10 other junior officers and enlisted personnel to create our band of innovators.
Q: How were the projects evaluated and selected for deployment? Have the 3D printers been a successful innovation?
A: Initially, all of the projects came about due to facilitated, off-the-record conversations. Our group of 12 members was afforded the opportunity to travel across the country to various innovation centers of excellence, and interact with a diverse group of non-military entrepreneurs. This included trips to Silicon Valley, Boston, Pittsburgh and San Diego, in addition to other places.
In the midst of these engagements, we would gather for dinner and drinks, and free-wheeling conversation would commence. From the things we learned, and the ideas we were exposed to, project ideas came about, were refined, and an individual took point for implementing it. The process is more formalized now, whereby applicants to the CRIC must already have a project in mind. To me, this is a real shame, since the collaborative, relational aspects of our initial group made for a powerful incubator of ideas. Many of our ideas were made much better because of the crucible of our peers’ constructive criticism.
3D printing was one of the first technologies we selected for integration, and I ran point as the project manager. The Navy has been involved in 3D printing for decades, but in a very dispersed and piecemeal way. Furthermore, there was no direct touchpoint to the deckplate Sailor, as all of the efforts were in rapid prototyping engineering or maintenance facilities. When we proposed putting one aboard USS Essex, there was a lot of skepticism, even from the commanding officer of the ship. However, by the time the project wrapped up this last fall, the CO of the Essex asked that they be able to retain the printer aboard ship.
Indeed, Pacific Fleet is looking to put more printers on other big deck ships based out of the West Coast. There is still significant work to be done — we need to get a grasp on the certification, accreditation, and supply chain management of printed parts – but our goal was to lay the foundation for the service to think about how to integrate additive manufacturing capabilities so that when they do become more widespread, we aren’t scrambling to develop policies for a technology that will come. I think we’ve met that.
Q: Can you provide a status of the CRIC’s current projects?
A: We currently have six active projects — three are hold overs from past years, and three are new starts this year.
The first is Ocean — AR. This is an effort to integrate augmented reality solutions using off-the- shelf technology. Lt Josh Steinman and Dr. Josh Kvavle, a Navy civilian engineer, are using Google Glass to develop and incorporate Navy-specific prototype applications for use by Sailors at sea and on the shore.
The next is Fleet Battle School. This is a custom, tabletop wargame that helps teach junior officers and others carrier battle group tactics, while also allowing them to experiment with tactical ideas in an environment where it is okay to fail. The board game is being play tested right now, and work is being done to integrate it into Navy War College and Naval Postgraduate School curriculum.
Silent Nemo was developed by Lt. j.g. Ian Crone, and is now run by U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jerome Lademan. It’s a biomimetic unmanned underwater vehicle. Think of a robotic tuna. Swims and looks like a fish. Lots of possibilities for integration and recently featured on the Drudge Report, Fox News, and others.
Waste To Watts is a project spearheaded by Lt. Eric Regnier to convert the residual food waste at the Naval Academy into energy that can be fed into the Academy’s power grid. Testing should begin this summer.
SMART is a virtual reality maintenance diagnostic tool developed by Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class Richard Walsh. It allows aircraft maintainers to instantly assess what is wrong with an aircraft, and give a probabilistic range for parts that need to be replaced.
Finally, the Littoral Operations Center is a concept developed by Lt. Jason Knudson. It creates a modular space aboard ship that will allow for “plug and play” capability for numerous mission modules by creating a standard architecture across platforms. One of the more potent capabilities is the integration of a temporary Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). The goal is to encourage non-proprietary backend systems to enable numerous, seamless modules to be integrated.
Q: Why did you establish the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, aren’t there organizations doing similar work? What organizations are involved and who can join? What do you hope to accomplish through the forum? Are there deliverables?
A: We established DEF because there were no other organizations doing what we wanted to do. There were two distinct inspirations for DEF: the engaging and dynamic national security conversations occurring on Twitter, and my complete dissatisfaction with the standard defense conference.
To the first, I believe that face-to-face interactions are still the most potent methods for idea exchange. We wanted to bring what we were seeing on Twitter to an in-person experience. To the second, when I go to a defense conference, I see endless contractors hawking their wares, panels of only senior officers not really saying much, and rubber chicken meals. Instead, we wanted a place where there was nothing being sold, no uniforms were allowed, the speakers would all be young, energetic folks with big ideas, and the relationship-building over high quality meals was the centerpiece. We also wanted there to be a tangible end-state to the weekend, and that’s where the pitch competition comes in.
After two days of experiencing young leader plenary talks, senior leader-led leadership case studies, and rousing happy hours, we all gather to hear eight teams pitch their ideas for national security change to a panel of five distinguished judges. This year, we teamed up with the U.S. Naval Institute to give $5,000 in cash prizes to three winners. Included on the judging panel were the Tesla, Inc. Chief Innovation Officer, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, and a University of Chicago entrepreneurship professor.
The winner was a project run by U.S. Air Force Maj. Mark Jacobsen, which featured homemade, disposable drones to deliver humanitarian supplies to besieged Syrian towns. Second place was Lt. Charlie Hymen with his eDIVO app, delivering up-to-date publications in real-time to shipboard users. Third place went to U.S. Air Force Maj. Dave Blair, with his MoneyJet proposal, which proposed using a “Moneyball” approach to aviator training and assessment.
Q: The TEDx /Startup Weekend is a global grassroots movement of active and empowered entrepreneurs who are learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures. Are you producing Navy videos or recommending videos for a Navy audience through this initiative. What kind of person do you hope to inspire?
A: We are producing high-quality videos through DEF — each of our plenary speakers had their 20-minute talk taped, and they are available on our website. Topics range from Lt. Cmdr. BJ Armstrong’s incredible discussion on Marine Corps implementation of helicopter technology in the 1950s to how mentors shaped the development of military officers.
We hope to inspire the creative thinker within the service who has always wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know how, or felt alone. We want to bring them into our community, get them relationally and intellectually engaged with our membership, and provide them support to make their idea reality.
One initiative we recently launched was the DEF Blog Shop. We’ve got 15 mentors from across the services who are prolific writers on call to help first-time authors work through their ideas and get them published. The written word is a powerful medium — it’s how I discovered many of the DEF and CRIC team members — and those that can clearly communicate have outsized influence. We are a resource for innovators with no place else to turn.
Q: I’ve heard some say that military innovation gets a bad rap because Sailors are innovating and modifying the tools they have to get the job done every day. How would you evaluate the culture of innovation in the Navy right now? Do you think the CRIC gave it a jump-start?
A: Sailors have always been a creative bunch. When push comes to shove, they find a way to make it work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the crucible of combat. Naval history is replete with heroes who came up with creative solutions on the fly to save their ships or crew, sometimes sacrificing themselves in the process. The problem is that in garrison, when not on deployment, many feel constrained by a risk-averse, no-fault culture.
Junior enlisted personnel have an especially difficult time. Rather than a culture of excellence, we have a culture of compliance, where by-the-book answers are rewarded, and deviating from that is punished. In general, that is a good thing — established procedures are critical for safe operations. Yet, process improvements and off-the-shelf tools that are integrated every day in the civilian world — tools that most Sailors go home and use every day — are prohibited because of arduous and costly accreditation processes. It took almost two years to get the most up-to-date Internet browsers on our machines — even after they had been approved! While that is a small thing, it is endemic of our culture as a whole. Furthermore, there is so little whitespace in the day for Sailors to be creative, that even if there was command support, they could not do it.
As for the CRIC, I think what we did is create a safe space for previously isolated disruptive thinkers. I can’t tell you how many people (both junior and senior) have said, “It is so refreshing to know you exist. I know I’m not alone, and now I have a venue to freely share these crazy ideas I’ve been considering.” The CNO himself is a staunch advocate, and has engaged directly with us on numerous occasions.
Q: How do innovators get through the Navy bureaucracy to get their ideas heard?
A: It takes a lot of grit, creative marketing, cold calling, and guts. Many junior people are afraid to stick their necks out because they have a fear of being different or being punished. In my experience, senior leaders are more than willing to listen to innovative solutions, but it takes a certain type of person — usually someone who is not very rank-conscious — to be able to cold call or email those senior leaders. Developing a network of well-placed allies throughout the service is also critical. Some of these allies are of junior ranks, but are in positions where they have the ear of a decision maker.
Others are very senior leaders themselves who have a desire to shake up the status quo. Furthermore, the broader your coalition, the harder it is for the antibodies opposed to change to derail your initiative. For 3D printing, we gathered everybody from Naval Sea Systems Command and the Navy Supply community to Combat Direction Systems Activity Dam Neck and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to play. This broad network gave us the access to experiment that we never would have had.
Finally, fostering relationships with journalists and getting ideas into publications is key. It’s almost like a guerilla marketing campaign. You will have failures and setbacks, but if you truly believe in your project, you find a way to find the right people to fight for you. Even if 100 people say no, all it takes is one very well-placed person to make your idea stick. Keep trying, and find other innovators to collaborate with.
Q: Do you think an individual can be motivated to innovate or are entrepreneurs just born risk-takers?
A: It’s a little bit of both. We’ve seen instances of born go-getters leveraging the CRIC and DEF, and also folks who never thought of challenging the status quo being inspired to take action simply because they saw others do the same, and now had implicit permission to make a difference.
In fact, those who weren’t self-described innovators before joining the CRIC or DEF are now some of our most energized folks. They were empowered to make a difference, and simply believing in their creative potential unleashed the unknown innovator within. There is a bit of a soft bigotry of low expectations that senior folks have towards junior personnel — our goal is to show that this shouldn’t be so, and anybody, if given the right environment and support network, can change their small part of the world.
Q: How big of a role does information technology and cyber play in innovation?
A: I would turn the question around and ask what role does innovation play in IT and cyber? The answer is that innovation DEFINES those two realms (or should, anyway). Simply put, our military IT systems have a very difficult time keeping pace with the rapid evolution that occurs across the rest of society. At one point in the past, military innovations were the cutting-edge, and led the civilian sector to greater discoveries. No longer. Now we are constantly trying to play catch up, and the tools we have are encumbered by proprietary, walled-garden systems that are exorbitantly expensive.
One defense contractor’s box often does not talk to another. Indeed, even elements created by the same contractor don’t talk to each other! This inhibits innovation while limiting the evolution of our technology to the innovation curve of a particular company. The reason the civilian sector outpaces our development is that they have a dynamic ecosystem with thousands of companies rising and falling, with better technology emerging each and every month. Many of the players in the defense IT and cyberspace are the same that were around decades ago when cyber wasn’t even a word. There is an incredible disconnect there.
Q: Do you plan to participate in the DoD Defense Innovation Initiative (DII), the Defense Innovation Marketplace ?
A: I’ve read the DII and Defense Innovation Marketplace, and to be honest, I’m not really sure what they are looking for. I would argue we’re already playing in, and in many ways defining, the Defense Innovation Initiative. To some extent the DII simply seems like “Transformation” or “the Revolution in Military Affairs” — both past attempts at getting new technology into the force — all over again.
The DII seems overly focused on technology, and not enough on empowering our servicemembers to be Jedi knights of change. Technology is good, but it always goes obsolete. High quality people are better, and they never go obsolete. They will be the ones to find creative uses for the things we already have, and imagine the things they want for the future. While the CRIC produces widgets, its true power is the enduring community of relationship-driven innovators that are equipped to solve a variety of complex and dynamic problems. Civilian venture capitalists invest as much in a person as the idea or company. We should do the same — our people truly are our most agile and potent warfighting asset.