Rob Nicholson, program lead for the Delaware Department of Technology, US Navy reservist and frequent downstate Delaware Technical.ly story pitcher, is taking a break.
Not for a vacation — but to focus on the Air Force Innovation Program (AFWERX) funded Defense Venture Fellowship program he was accepted into this fall.
AFRWERX, to put it simply, pairs U.S. service members with tech developers, essentially making the Air and Space Force into an early-stage VC investment partner. Cohort members like Nicholson are paired with host venture capital companies and focus on a certain topic or problem while on leave from their day jobs or regular day-to-day military schedule.
“I get to just focus, I’m not getting pulled in all the typical directions with all the organizational stuff, the operational stuff and all the other things that are going on in my life,” Nicholson said. “I get to reflect and think about things and reach outside of my typical circles to explore and dig into depth and breadth topics that I typically wouldn’t have time to do.”
The virtual program provides training and collaborative opportunities to work with other fellows from US Space Force, Air Force, Army and Marines, tech industry VCs, start-ups, and big tech, including brands like Google and LinkedIn.
Nicholson’s host company, Scout Ventures, has made investments in various tech startups and recently created a $55 million fund to invest in backing veterans in tech who work in areas like machine learning, robotics, drones and quantum computing. Nicholson’s project involves commercialization of products.
“By commercialization, ultimately, what I mean is taking an idea and bringing it to a some type of product or solution that could be in the hands of a customer,” he said. “And that way, if it’s an internal innovation program that you employ, it’s employee driven, and it leads to a solution. If it’s a university with an IP that they want to move out with a startup, that’s cool, they can license it to a larger company in the industry. Either way, it’s all commercialization programming.”
Nicholson says he works well with the flexible self-guided nature of the fellowship, but, for some, especially career servicepeople, it can be a challenge.
“They actually bring it up,” he said. “They say, ‘look, all you guys are military. You’re used to waiting for marching orders. Some of you guys are gonna have a hard time because you’re not going to be told what to do. You’re gonna get a taste of what entrepreneurship really is.'”
Although all of the fellows are in the military, Nicholson says his cohort is comprised of different kinds of people and different perspectives, including contracting acquisition people, technologists, scientists, pilots and cybersecurity techs.
So far, Nicholson, who also sits on the boards for The Science and Technology Advisory Board and Delaware’s committee for the EPSCoR grant, has had the opportunity to speak with people from NASA, NOAA, the National Security Innovation Network, Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), MITRE, FedTech, University of Delaware, Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center, State of Michigan, venture capital firms and angel investors. He intends to bring all that he gets out of the fellowship back to Delaware.
“I think that some of the information and insights gathered could potentially be injected into existing programs or lead to potentially funding and creation of new programs that support some of the key innovation, entrepreneurship programs, resources and activities that are going on in the state and region,” he said. “I would love if the state could have fellowship opportunities, whether it’s for state employees or the universities, to potentially move the needle of the ecosystem of Delaware.”-30-